WE HAD SOHO. We had the East Village. We have Chelsea and Williamsburg, Bushwick and Red Hook. What will become New York’s next art neighborhood?
“I guess all of these artists live in the Bronx?” the actor Alan Alda surmised on Monday, during the cocktail hour for the Bronx Museum of Art’s annual benefit gala. We were far south of that borough, on the outer planet of the Conrad Hotel in Battery Park City. Some of the artist-donors to the impressive silent auction, at least, were from the Bronx, as reported by Alan’s wife, Arlene Alda, an honoree and the author of an oral history, Just Kids from the Bronx. “It came out today and it’s number one on Amazon,” her husband said, proudly. “This is the night of the comedians,” one guest commented, inclining her head toward the standup comic Robert Klein. Prominent among the other 350 guests was the fulsome facial hair on Tony Feher. “It has its own ZIP code at this point,” the artist conceded.
And so began a week of fairs and openings that has served up freezing rain, black ice, snow, and slush with that other bitter pill of New York life, real estate. Time and again, there were tales of opportunity and woe, as artists and gallerists told of forced relocations around and beyond Manhattan, sometimes for the better.
A few of the younger curators at the Museum of Modern Art made good use of their second-floor allotment that evening, when Ana Janevski and Sarah Suzuki joined Quentin Bajac and Eva Respini—future chief curator at the ICA Boston—to show off their rotation, “Scenes for a New Heritage: Contemporary Art from the Collection,” for contributing artists, their dealers, and friends. The hundred or so viewers on hand enjoyed a pleasure rare for MoMA—space and time to properly experience the art. David Maljkovic was one. Titled after his video installation, the show felt like it had more clarity and evenhandedness than is usual for such surveys.
The space it took up was the height of luxury compared with the cramped quarters that the museum gave to “Björk,” the most embarrassing exhibition at MoMA for as long as the living can recall. That is the most notable quality of this WTF “retrospective,” a burden that curator and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach evidently carried around for fourteen years before the Icelandic pop star—surely one of the most original, tech-savvy, and fashion-forward performers to come out of the suddenly voguish 1990s—relented.
Perhaps for good reason, the show’s subject was uncharacteristically shy at the press preview on Tuesday morning, forbidding photographs, interviews, or even visibility. That was a condition of her appearance in the two-story, black-box projection room now taking up the museum’s atrium, where Black Lake, her latest, and possibly most pedestrian, music video is getting its debut. Reportedly—I couldn’t make her out in the foam-padded room’s total darkness—she was wearing a cactus headdress. Her other, better-known costumes—familiar from videos, performances and appearances past—are on display with a few notebook pages in cubicles set off by heavy black curtains. A time line of videos anyone can see at home on YouTube line a hallway. The whole thing suggests something closer to a world’s fair pavilion than a show at the Museum of Modern Art. Following the one-two-three punch of its Sigmar Polke, Christopher Williams, and Robert Gober exhibitions, “Björk” is a shocking reminder that, to borrow a phrase from Some Like It Hot, nobody’s perfect. As if we needed reminding.
There is hope—there is always hope—for a better curatorial future. Some of it was on tap that very afternoon at the surprising SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Though this is founders Andrew Gori and Ambre Kelly’s fourth edition, it is not a dealer’s fair. Instead, it features youngish art selected by forty independent curators. Each, sometimes with the help of an artist, conceived their installations in a warren of seedy former offices on two floors of New York’s central post office, now Moynihan Station. (Someday the building will replace Penn Station.)
This was the fun fair of the week. The decrepit quarters and bootstrapping presentations reminded some visitors of the first Gramercy Art Fair. The atmosphere was eerily similar. I don’t know if anything was selling, but Maurizio Cattelan and Ali Subotnik gave it a thumbs up, and adventurous collectors and dealers like Anita Zabludowicz and Magda Sawon roamed the dim halls in the early hours, clearly enjoying the experience of never being prepared for what turned up next.
Arielle de Saint Phalle brought vintage 1960s issues of Hara-Kiri—the satirical magazine that inspired Charlie Hebdo—to a room that also featured a carnivalesque live performance of drawings-on-demand by “The DMZL.” Kathleen Cullen had Drew Dominick’s soft-rubber cast of an equestrian bronze by Frederick Remington, another inspired object. In Maureen Sullivan’s rooms, artists Eve Sussman and Jimbo Blachy placed their art within a fictional gumshoe’s office—actually the location of a scene in the Coen brothers’ movie Inside Llewyn Davis. In another room, Brent Birnbaum bolted together eleven treadmills and replaced their moving belts with textile paintings. Fake wood paneling lined a room where artist-curator Jo Shane made clever use of discarded pharmaceutical bottles. “Art is a great excuse for hoarding,” she said.
At least two curators chose filthy lucre as a subject—to elevating, rather than numbing, effect. Each of the four artists in Tess Sol Schwab’s room devalued gold or folding money in collaged artworks that included push brooms and flowers. But Dustin Yellin went all out, Mike Nelson style, to shred, as only he could, $10,000 within a fictional landscaping business specializing in the removal of “whatever grows on trees.”
Meanwhile, the barren trees outside were taking on fresh snowfall, making the icy steps to the Park Avenue Armory treacherous for the high-heeled crowd arriving for the 5:30 PM opening of the Art Show, the Art Dealers Association of America’s annual exposition. Collectors like Jane Holzer and Donald Marron anxiously stood by while New York City cultural affairs commissioner Tom Finkelpearl prepared to cut the ribbon for the opening, a benefit for the Henry Street Settlement. “It’s five thirty-one!” Marron called out. The ribbon-cutting commenced, and when it was done, I asked Finkelpearl if our art-indifferent mayor Bill de Blasio was ever going to give his attention to artist housing. “Yes!” Finkelpearl replied. “And soon!”
But the Art Show, at least, is always worth a wait. For one thing, it serves up the tastiest hors d’oeuvres of any art fair anywhere. And with thick carpeting, lighting that flatters both artworks and people, a gorgeous setting, and tightly focused presentations, it has more the feel of an old-world salon than a polished trade show for modern and contemporary art.
Mostly contemporary, though, as one patron standing before a Grandma Moses painting at Galerie St. Etienne remarked, “How can you look at that and not smile—especially today?” Marian Goodman really turned it out for Tony Cragg, David Zwirner for Forrest Bess, Cheim & Read for Al Held, Tanya Bonakdar for Haim Steinbach, Galerie Lelong for Etel Adnan, and Janet Bordon for Jan Groover—and these were only a few of the standouts among the seventy-two stands. “We’re here,” Irving Blum told dealer Susan Sheehan. “We’ll take them all,” he said of her suite of Brice Marden drawings. And so it went, as the snow kept falling and the Ubers kept arriving.
Meanwhile, back at MoMA, the “Björk” opening was in full swing for what appeared to be a thousand or more admirers, but so it goes wherever there’s an open bar. “MoMA is the new nightclub,” one clobbered patron offered. Long lines formed outside the screening room and the exhibition, while the star stood off to the side of the atrium clad in a handmade white dress of origami silk petals, an outfit from the threeASFOUR collective’s exhibition at the Jewish Museum a couple of years ago. Biesenbach stood guard close by, making sure that, once again, no one raised a camera phone in Björk’s direction or spoke to her unless invited. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just that we’re so tired.” That was disappointing not just for the crowd, but to threeASFOUR as well. “It’s okay,” said designer Adi Gil. “Björk is a very good customer. The best.” After a little hop and a twirl, the singer made her way through the unseeing crowd and went home.
It was all of 9 PM, time for a dinner that the Swiss Institute was hosting with Eva Presenhuber, 303 Gallery, David Kordansky, and Kammel Mennour galleries for Valentin Carron at Il Buco Alimentari. Swiss Institute director Simon Castets toasted the artist for “Work Hard: Selections by Valentin Carron,” the group exhibition he had organized with work by Swiss artists who mean something to him—Meret Oppenheim, Latifa Echakhch, Fabrice Gygi, Daniel Spoerri, and Jean Tinguely among them. With the weather very Swiss, and the Italian food abundant, the evening took a turn for the jolly—but it wasn’t over yet.
At 11:57, Marco Brambilla achieved liftoff with the premiere of his three-minute rocket film “Apollo XVIII,” filling five big screens in slushy Times Square. The film, which will play in the same place and at the same time every night for a month, attracted an only-in-New-York assortment of well-wishers. They included Uma Thurman, the turbaned jeweler Waris Ahluwalia, Creative Time director Anne Pasternak, artists Andro Wekua and Sarah Morris, and New York Times scenester Bob Morris. All eyes drifted upward as images of a digital countdown rose up buildings in a variety of hot colors that jointly turned crimson in the final moments. It was better than New Year’s Eve and, in the chill of the night, quite a bit more exclusive.
Far more so than the VIP preview of the Armory Show on Wednesday. Though Piers 92 and 94 are among the most inhospitable venues in town, people came in waves throughout the day, proving once again that a fair where art rarely shows its best side can still be a convenient place for collectors, curators, artists, and dealers from all over to meet.
The food at this fair is still overpriced and awful, the lighting is murderous, and the aisles so long it’s hard for much of anything to register. “The forced march,” reflected ADAA executive director Linda Blumberg, staring into the distance. And yet. Dealers were flush with the excitement of sales, people confabbed everywhere, and there were enough Instagram-ready installations to keep up the spirits. Glenn Kaino’s flying brass arrows at Honor Fraser’s stand made one; biologist-artist Brandon Ballengée’s cutout collages of extinct American species at Ronald Feldman was another. “I’m happy we took this out of Berlin,” said dealer Thomas Schulte of artist Michael Müller’s Robert Musil–inspired, pink-walled installation in his booth. “It’s one thing to show it to 1,500 people there and another to 50,000 people here.”
By evening, as untold numbers trekked to MoMA for its Armory party, all was quiet in Chelsea, where Stefania Bortolami and Green Tea Gallery (Ei and Tomoo Arakawa) collaborated on the lone opening, an exhibition commemorating the fourth anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima.
Fortunately, the earth didn’t crack, but neither did the ice outside. With more snow on the way, and the week only half gone, the business of art took a back seat to Bortolami’s party at Boxers, a gay sports bar where waiters wear red boxer shorts, and quiet dinners at Bottino.
Slipping into a puddle of deep slush, I suddenly felt like Björk must have in Black Lake, when she pounds her chest with alarming force, and wails.