ARMORY ARTS WEEK got the jump on Easter this year by arriving on the first of March with its own Second Coming. On that day, the gods pulled back the curtain of winter to reveal, in all of its freshly sandblasted glory, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new modern and contemporary art sibling: the Met Breuer.
Excuse me. I meant to say, THE MET Breuer, the museum’s rebranding of the Brutalist jewel box on Madison Avenue that Marcel Breuer designed in 1966 for the Whitney Museum of American Art. Though THE MET has only an eight-year lease, it has taken possession of the born-again building as if the arrangement were permanent.
Red is the color of THE MET’s unnecessary new, block-letter logo. Red LED screens on express-ticket kiosks in the lobby address recent litigation over prices with the tortured phrase, “Full Suggested Admission Only.” (Those who choose to pay what they wish must go to the reception desk and face down an actual person.) And the concrete canopy over the building’s entry now sports the rouged underbelly of a Christian Louboutin shoe. But hey—that’s contemporary, no?
I pondered the question throughout a day of fresh starts that began at Emmanuel Perrotin, two blocks south of the Breuer, with a preview of a show by Erró, the eighty-four-year-old Icelandic Pop artist who is yuge in France but virtually a stranger to Americans—except for Carolee Schneemann. The two collaborated in 1963 on photographs of a naked Schneemann merging with her materials, and on a performance involving a horse, or so said Hans Ulrich Obrist, who knows everything about everyone and forgets nothing. As a teenager, Perrotin worshipped Erró, whose collages and paintings blend a Playboy aesthetic with that of Mad magazine and the Hairy Who.
It felt natural then to move on to Anke Kempkes, a dealer who specializes in second acts. She was christening the first of her Broadway 1602 gallery’s two new homes in an elegant, East Sixty-Third Street townhouse with coffee, pastries, and a lovely exhibition of work by the very underrecognized Pop artist Idelle Weber. (In May, Kempkes will join new Gavin Brown and Elizabeth Dee galleries in Harlem, where she’ll open an additional, much larger space.)
The unruly ruled at the fifth edition of Ambre Kelly and Andrew Gori’s “curator-driven” Spring/Break Art Show, the place to go for collectors who want to see art that does not look like art in spaces that are not white cubes. At this fun fair, independent curators and artists liberated from gallery representation kitted out the shabby, fake wood-paneled offices on two block-long floors of Manhattan’s main post office, at some undetermined date to become the new Amtrak hub, Moynihan Station.
During the sparsely attended VIP preview—it’s all about the evening opening here—I stumbled into one theatrical environment after another, some with next-level, new generation artworks that veered from the helplessly digital to the emphatically handmade. At the third-floor entrance were three thousand square feet of a digitally printed New York mural by Anne Spalter. In a darkened room on the fourth floor, Cate Giordano created a full-scale diner, with fake food, actual booths, and fully dressed stick-figure patrons. Chris Bors’s show was encapsulated in its title, “Guilty of Being White.” And tiny collages by the dry-witted filmmaker Jim Jarmusch appeared with new works by Michael Zwack, Robin Winters, and the French affichiste Jaques Villeglé in a scattershot room organized by Arielle de Saint Phalle and Taylor Roy.
Within a complex of rooms curated by Dustin Yellin was “Jimmy’s Thrift Store,” a display by Azikiwe Mohammed featuring neons, self-made vinyl records, toys, mail art, and a whole lot of other things that could call to mind New Davonhaime, a fictitious town named for the five cities in America with the largest black populations. “I’m just trying to make a place that’s a little less crappy than the world we have,” he said.
Another world was a hop and skip away at the Park Avenue Armory, where the Art Dealers Association of America held its gala preview of the Art Show, a benefit for the Henry Street Settlement. It’s also good for art, and even better for the social nature of people. Decibel-dampening carpet, flattering light, champagne stations, and commodious buffet tables all contribute to the illusion of an old-school salon. “It’s kind of nice that you can have a drink and look at art at the same time,” observed Lucky DeBellevue, one of several artists who came to see how the other half shops.
Small booths encourage dealers to limit their wares to small-scale solo presentations of works either freshly minted—by a Sherry Levine, Gillian Wearing, or María Elena González—or historic (read: male)—by the likes of Barry Le Va, Bob Thompson, or Sigmar Polke. The goal, of course, is to seduce the bejeweled dowagers and manicured businessmen in attendance still resistant to contemporary art. “You have to have the proper environment for something like this,” said philanthropist Phyllis Kossoff of an ink-on-mirror painting in the all–Nick Mauss 303 Gallery booth. “But it looks beautiful,” she added, as apology for moving off.
Longing eyes hankered for the sparkling, pulverized mica paintings by Polke (from 1999) that were hanging on the midnight walls of the Michael Werner booth. “I was in his studio when he figured this out,” dealer Gordon VeneKlasen told collector Barbara Jakobson, sounding still awed. David Nolan had roped off the front of his stand, where Le Va re-created a felt scatter piece from 1967 that he hadn’t exhibited since. “It comes with instructions,” Nolan said, “though you can choose either to drop or throw.” One section, however, requires a collector to give it a good kick.
I kicked myself up to the Breuer, where THE MET director Thomas Campbell and its president, Dan Weiss, were greeting a super-VIP crowd of trustees and lenders, as well as directors and curators from every other museum in town. All clearly were eager to see what a greenhorn modern and contemporary department overseen by Sheena Wagstaff had wrought with “Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible,” a destabilizing experience of unforeseen proportions.
“My grandfather thought these paintings were finished,” said Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, owner of Woman in a Red Armchair, 1931, a done-over (and over) portrait of his grandmother, Marie-Thérèse Walter. It hangs on the fourth floor with a bunch of Cézannes that look even more deliberately undone. “You can see that from one day to the next, his feelings for my grandmother changed radically,” the grandson joked. “I guess he was a little testy.”
But the whole show is radical. It’s bold to open a branch of THE MET for modern and contemporary art with a show that looks back seven hundred years—but odd to borrow two-thirds of it from other collections. Or was that just a ploy to elicit gifts from any Leonard Lauders around? So went one theory floated by first-nighters faced with many dislocations. “That’s the same Janine Antoni I put in a biennial,” remarked New Museum director Lisa Phillips, once a curator for the Whitney. “And it’s in the same place!”
I found Brice Marden taking refuge in a room dedicated to “unfinished” Turners, the most beautifully lit room in the show. And it was sweet to catch Elizabeth Peyton gazing at her finished copy of an unfinished portrait of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, who is represented by another incomplete portrait. “The underpainting is marvelous!” exclaimed more than one artist confronting abandoned-in-progress masterworks by Titian, Rembrandt, and van Eyeck that evening. “It’s fantastic to see it at the Whitney.”
Indeed, even with these clues it was hard to remember where we were, despite the building’s obvious face-lift and new personality, schizoid though it be. Well, it always takes time to get used to a new home. It has to evolve, as do the people in it. “It’s really different seeing a show one knew only on paper,” said Nicholas Cullinan, curator of “Unfinished” until he became director of London’s National Portrait Gallery. “It’s alive!” said Wagstaff of the institution before her. “There are so many parallels between the contemporary and the Renaissance that I’d never seen before—but that’s why we’re here.”
I had to go—to Perrotin’s dinner at Vaucluse for the jolly Erró. Sadly, Schneemann wasn’t at the table. But Peter Saul, a natural compadre, was, along with Bartholomew Ryan, cocurator of “International Pop,” the show currently in residence at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and that man about town, Jeffrey Deitch, who was conspicuous by his absence from the Wednesday morning VIP preview of the Armory Show.
Apparently, the term “VIP” is now as suspect as “unfinished.” By midafternoon, Pier 94 was so dense with supposed elites that it was almost impossible to see, or at least, to focus on, any art. Heads turned for Steve Martin, John Waters, and for Anderson Cooper, who peered closely at a Tracey Emin in Lorcan O’Neill’s booth before moving down the aisle.
This was the first Armory Show for director Benjamin Genocchio. The onetime art critic had prepared a mantra he repeated for the mobs of reporters rushing him. “This isn’t just an art fair,” he said. “It’s a New York institution.” He took pride in its lack of outside underwriting. “This is not a franchise brought to you by a bank,” he said, clearly a dig at Frieze, which depends on Deutsche Bank, and at Art Basel, which is tethered to UBS. “This is brought to you by the New York art world.” He predicted that dealers in the fair would do $200 million in business over five days, and said he felt humbled by the opportunity to “imagine what can be.”
One good idea would be to get off the inhospitable piers. And to integrate the special-focus galleries, with, say, Ronald Feldman, who turned his stand into a nightclub dominated by a kind of luminescent jellyfish chandelier by Shih Chieh Huang. Or near the Alberta Pane Gallery booth, where a naked woman with strategically draped long hair—the Italian artist Romina De Novellis—was filling the openings of her chicken-wire cage with edible white roses. This was a promotion for Ella, a rose-scented perfume launching in September at Barney’s, and a collaboration with Kreëmart, the art-and-dessert project conceived by Raphael Castoriano. “This is about feelings,” he said. Good to know.
Exhausted by having to part churning seas of art advisers and would-be collectors without a sign from God, I departed for the civilized environs of the Marian Goodman Gallery, which was screening three films by Tacita Dean—one is a recent portrait of David Hockney—and showing chalk paintings and photographs of California clouds installed, appropriately, near the ceiling. Dean is an artist of utmost integrity, yet even she made a kind of fashion statement by sewing printed silk, patch pockets onto her white shirt. (They are from a limited edition of pockets benefiting the RAFI Foundation.)
“This is a love fest for Tacita,” said Goodman in her toast to the artist at Tocqueville, where collectors made up a small minority of dinner guests who included friends like Roni Horn, Piero Golia, and Julie Mehretu, curators from museums in at least three countries (including Mexico City’s Tamayo, where Dean will have a show next year), and Jeff Clarke, the CEO of Kodak, whom Dean characterized as “the man who saved film.”
It’s true. Because of Clarke, a business executive dedicated to preserving and promoting an artist’s medium, Kodak is the only company in the world to manufacture film as well as freely supply digital-only movie houses with film projectors. I was surprised to hear that digital processes are not cheaper, so there’s really no reason for directors to trade in the richness or depth available to film for the flattening effects of high-def. In her own improvised monologue of a toast, Dean remarked, “A medium does not go obsolete; technology does.” She also quoted Hockney. “Inspiration,” he told her, “she does not visit the lazy.”
Yet only the lazy are smart enough to stay home during Armory Week. The rest of us suit up for the next fair. That’s how we stay so contemporary.