When you see Yoko Ono speed-walking toward the exit during the first hour of a New York art fair, it can be reason for concern. When you then spot Andy Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs moving in the opposite direction, in hot pursuit of drawings by James Bishop and Sol LeWitt, you worry less. But when people start complaining that there aren't enough celebrities in the room, it is hard not to think you’re in trouble.
“Where’s Martha?” I heard voices trill in the aisles of The Art Show on Wednesday night, at the gala preview of the Art Dealers Association of America fair at the Park Avenue Armory. Martha Stewart had been there last year—and “Misha.” You know, Baryshnikov. “This is the quietest ADAA fair ever,” another detractor said. “No buzz.” Personally, I took that as a sign of health.
It’s true that there wasn't much excitement to the evening’s festivities—as usual, a benefit for the Henry Street Settlement—but was that because it attracted few famous faces and few works of art startling enough to give anyone shivers or because the overhyped market has finally hit a plateau? When the celebrities stay home, it might mean the speculators do, too. (Except that the usual complement of museum directors and curators was also mysteriously missing.) “Everyone has been saying we’re in for a downturn,” observed dealer David Nolan, a SoHo holdout who will soon move his gallery, at last, to Chelsea, while opening a second—in Berlin. “People are seriously buying.”
It’s also true, of course, that when most of a crowd has gray, thinning hair, runs a bank or real estate company, or sports an obvious face-lift, it doesn’t feel much like a party. Now that the ADAA has been infiltrated by a number of contemporary galleries, perhaps it would help to have more than a few living artists on hand. Aside from Lisi Raskin—one of three artists commissioned by Bard Center for Curatorial Studies executive director Tom Eccles to fashion site-specific installations for three of the Armory's wood-paneled period rooms, the only ones I saw were Sarah Charlesworth, Lari Pittman, John Newman, Peter McGough, and Caio Fonseca, who claimed to have come to “kill multiple birds with one stone.”
Compared with fairs in Miami, say, this one is a snooze of a small club. Most members I saw were corporate chiefs (Leonard Lauder, Steven Schwartzman, John Demsey, Donald Marron) and their wives, old-school collectors like Wynn Kramarsky and Agnes Gund, art advisers on cell phones, and dealers from the seventy galleries in their modestly scaled booths.
Among the busier ones were Los Angeles stalwart Margo Leavin, who brought what she was calling “California Conceptualism,” chiefly photographs. Steve Wolfe’s book-cover paintings were drawing crowds into Luhring Augustine, and a terrific assortment of works on paper by Paul Feeley and James Bishop kept pulling close lookers to San Antonio’s Lawrence Markey, who was also offering the hundred-thousand-dollar drawing by Sol LeWitt, from 1976, that so interested Kramarsky and Wachs. For me, the works that really stood out were a bow-tie-shaped gold wall piece by Lynda Benglis (at Andrea Rosen Gallery) and a simply stunning 1984 ceramic by Ken Price that Garth Clark had placed on a pedestal in the front of his booth, where no one with eyes could (or should) miss it.
Actually, a number of dealers took the trouble to make their booths look less like merchandise minimarts than actual exhibitions. “We always curate our booths,” said Rosen, who had cleverly contextualized a vertical assemblage by Elliott Hundley, one of her up-and-comers, with a Moholy-Nagy color photograph to which it had an eerie correspondence. No fewer than eighteen other dealers mounted one-person presentations (Amy Sillman at Sikkema Jenkins, Tina Barney at Janet Borden, Russell Crotty at CRG, Olafur Eliasson at Tanya Bonakdar, vintage Lisa Yuskavage at David Zwirner), giving the whole less the sense of a trade show than an upper-crust salon. “The show is definitely more focused this year,” noted ADAA director Linda Blumberg. “More intimate. I’m really happy with the whole thing.”
PaceWildenstein, having persuaded Richard Tuttle to design its booth to advertise his jump from the Sperone Westwater ship, exhibited a dozen painted museum-board bricks that sold for about fifty thousand dollars each, with a more complex (and tantalizing) collage going for eighty-five thousand. “I tried to buy one of these several years ago,” said Whitney Museum curator David Kiehl. “But Richard wasn’t selling them then.”
Barbara Gladstone’s booth looked especially suave, with knockout drawings and ceramic sculptures by the latest addition to her roster, Andrew Lord, who puts what we might call total body English (kneading, licking, biting) to his task. It left me thinking there might be more radical work going on in ceramics these days than anywhere else in sculpture. “It’s definitely a new frontier,” Gladstone agreed. She gets credit for staying on it.
But this fair was never meant to represent the cutting edge of art, just what would suit a Park Avenue apartment. With top-shelf postwar and Impressionist works already in collections or headed for auction houses, the ADAA had no recourse but to embrace contemporary dealers who also have a firm grip on secondary-market material. The one door to the future was supplied by Eccles, Trevor Smith, and their team from Bard. Besides Raskin’s elaborate re-creation of a cold-war–era surveillance room (complete with hotline red phone), there was a rotating archive of artists' videos on hallway monitors, a duplex installation of Spencer Finch monochrome drawings and sculpture, and Pietro Roccasalva’s cocoa soccer ball on a photo-paper stack.
This being an art fair, and a period in which it seems possible to sell anything, I wondered whether these works were for sale. “They’re impossible to buy,” said Eccles. “Or if they did sell, it could only go to someone who really, really liked art.”