UNSETTLING TIMES have unsettled the art world. If this year’s Armory Week pointed up any one trend, it was a certain changing of the guard from the top down.
For the first time since the election of Donald J. Trump, conversation dominated by national politics took a back seat to who-killed-Cock-Robin speculation over Metropolitan Museum director Thomas Campbell’s resignation on Tuesday. That only deepened the mystery of Andrea Rosen’s bombshell letter announcing the closing of her gallery, hard on the heels of Hauser & Wirth’s equally rumor-mongering separation from the gallery’s Los Angeles partner, Paul Schimmel. When the “failing” New York Times starts living up to Trump’s epithet by reviewing art at the fairs within the context of dealer fashions—Diary territory!—you know the earth is shaking.
The week actually began on a socially conscious note, when the Museum of Modern Art premiered Tania Libre, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s documentary about the activist Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. “Art is dissent,” Bruguera said during a Q&A with Leeson and curator Stuart Comer.
There wasn’t much evidence of that idea on Tuesday, when the young, curator-driven Spring/Break Art Show opened to VIPs on two floors of the former Condé Nast building in Times Square.
Once inside the now squalid offices, any hope for the discovery of a new underground on the order of 1980’s “Times Square Show” had to be abandoned. With a few exceptions, exhibiting curators—some of them professional dealers, others artists representing themselves—took a slapdash, art-schooly stab at “Black Mirror,” the theme chosen by fair organizers Ambre Kelly and Andrew Gori.
Conceptualism faded beneath an onslaught of digital imagery, 3-D printing, and robotics, with occasional relief from the proudly handmade. In the latter category, Cate Giordano stood out with her Ed Kienholz–influenced domestic environments, but a biker barber shop presented by Eve Sussman and dealer Simon Lee seemed less like art than a slight distraction from it. Four Letter Word Projects curator Lynn Sullivan succeeded, however, where many did not, with a thoroughly professional group exhibition in what was formerly a kitchen.
Across town, at the Park Avenue Armory, the polar opposite of this chaotic experience awaited at the serene opening of the Art Show, the Art Dealers Association of America’s stately annual fair. Yet even here, where the rumor mill went into overdrive, the landscape was noticeably populated less by the jewel-encrusted dowagers and retired bankers than a younger generation more engaged with contemporary art than American modernism, which once ruled this fair.
“I’ve seen more billionaires tonight than I ever did in Basel,” said ADAA president Adam Sheffer. MoMA people such as director Glenn Lowry, painting and sculpture chief curator Ann Temkin, former president Agnes Gund, and trustee Donald Marron all converged at once. “Well,” Temkin declared. “You know how we like to shop!”
Also on the floor was Nancy Spector, who is returning to the Guggenheim Museum—this time as deputy director as well as chief curator—after just a year at the Brooklyn Museum. “I couldn’t resist the tug of home,” she said.
Another turn of the wheel was just inside the entrance, where Paula Cooper, who probably has mentored more dealers than any other gallerist, chose her first appearance here in twenty years to introduce her new hires, battle-scarred veterans Lisa Cooley and Jay Gorney, with a solo show of new Kelley Walker collages that verge on territory claimed by another gallery artist, Christian Marclay.
San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier also set tongues wagging with a $1 million glass-and-mirror sculpture from 1981 by Larry Bell. Many guests were captivated by the vintage photograms in the Hans P. Kraus Jr. booth and by the giant light-box photo of an interior scene by Rodney Graham at 303 Gallery. “I feel like I’m in the art!” exclaimed dealer Lisa Spellman.
This fair is always beautiful to behold, partly because the small scale of the booths encourages dealers to focus on solo projects, like the miniretrospective of Joyce Pensato paintings at Petzel. (Luhring Augustine should always hang Josh Smiths on mauve walls.) “Some say we’re the star of the show,” boasted dealer Sean Kelly, indicating paintings by Ilse D’Hollander, a Belgian artist who died at age twenty-nine.
Matthew Marks, from whose gallery Brice Marden and the estate of Tony Smith recently decamped, put his best face forward with delicacies from Ellsworth Kelly and Jasper Johns. “Jasper gave that to Robert Scull’s son for his bar mitzvah,” he said of a 1961 painting that featured a cast fountain pen. Marc Selwyn turned up with a mix-and-match presentation of gorgeous drawings by Lee Bontecou and Jay DeFeo.
No such sense of order attended Wednesday’s opening of the Armory Show, the anchor fair of the week and the first fully under the control of director Benjamin Genocchio. He spoke enthusiastically of changes he has wrought: “slimming” the number of galleries (to 210), (thinly) carpeting wider aisles, repositioning booths, and removing one aisle and adding both cross-paths and more open spaces, which included a faux village green for the commissioned installation of red-and-white polka-dotted sculptures by Yayoi Kusama. But they didn’t add up to a better experience of art on these unforgiving piers.
I couldn’t help but think that that the fair might benefit from returning to its new-art-only origins and consolidating on a single pier. Jeffrey Deitch recalled those beginnings as the Gramercy Art Fair with a re-creation of his magenta Florine Stettheimer Collapsed Time Salon. Designed by Ricky Clifton and Jane Kaplowitz, it included a wall of historical works with many of far more recent vintage. “I hear you’re in line for the Met job,” joked collector Irving Blum to Deitch. “But only if you take Paul Schimmel with you.” (As insiders know, there’s no love lost between those two.)
It was, in any case, a shame to hide curator Jarrett Gregory’s Focus section—an exhibition rather than a regionally organized ghetto—at the far end of Pier 92, up the rickety stairs, past the quiet twentieth-century art booths, and in front of a misplaced VIP room.
“It’s super-international,” Gregory said of her selection, which put the emphasis on politically or socially engaged artists and privileged female artists, few of them white.
At the back of Pier 94, the new Insights section, for young galleries, got high marks from attendees. Of particular note was the Zohra Opoku installation in Seattle’s Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, which took the $10,000 Athena Art Finance prize for best booth. And it deserved it, though Various Small Fires had a nice collection of Mernet Larsen drawings, and in the main section, P420, König, and Continua also had admirable presentations.
All the same, it was exhilarating to move back to proper galleries that night, when Marian Goodman—possibly the most stable point in the New York art world—opened shows of new works by Lawrence Weiner and Eija-Liisa Ahtila, with Robert Barry, Joan Jonas, and Mary Heilmann in attendance, while Gagosian’s Madison Avenue flagship welcomed a different generation of art stars (Cindy Sherman, Albert Oehlen, Mark Grotjahn, Richard Prince) to a strangely erotic exhibition of new paintings and ceramic sculptures by Sterling Ruby. The Goodman group dined at the Monkey Bar; Gagosian’s crowd repaired to a buffet at the dealer’s Kappo Masa downstairs.
With this head of steam, Thursday brought the simultaneous openings of the Independent and NADA fairs. With its selective group of top mid-level galleries, the Independent’s residence at the sun-drenched Spring Studios was the far more pleasant experience, where artists—in particular, Magali Reus (The Approach), Derrick Adams (Tilton), Anna Betbeze (Gorney), Andrés Eidelstein (Karma), Darja Bajagić (Carlos Ishikawa), and David Shrigley (Anton Kern)––really had a chance to shine and/or disturb.
With its mostly tiny stalls and much-wasted space, NADA had little clarity. Maybe I was too weary to take in any more art-as-merchandise, except in the larger, more experienced galleries such as 11R, Callicoon, Moran Bondaroff, and Tif Sigfrids. Meanwhile, the new Sue Williams show at 303 was a breath of fresh air, and in his New York debut at Lisson Gallery, Pedro Reyes’s sculpture and drawing installation seemed more like a festival than a single exhibition. “It’s the artist’s revenge,” he said, mostly as a riposte to Trump’s denigration of Mexican nationals.
By the time I got to the Modern Institute/Karma dinner at En Japanese Brasserie, where Jordan Wolfson more or less held court over Eidelstein and Walter Price, I was at the point of praying: Whatever comes next, please let it be in one place.
It isn’t likely, however, that the art world will actually contract. Still, in a week, when the Whitney Biennial arrives, it could bring yet another reshuffling of the cards.