ARMORY ARTS WEEK in New York is not Miami Basel. The air isn’t balmy, the parties aren’t excessive, the product promotions are chill, and the art fairs—at least ten this year—are just another weave in the fabric of New York life. That leaves the art world to ogle itself without pesky intrusions from celebrities, who largely stayed away this time around.
To start the week’s engines, the intrepid nonprofit Art Production Fund chose last Monday night to unveil its latest public commission: Josephine Meckseper’s Manhattan Oil Project, featuring a pair of full-scale pump jacks working the ground of the only remaining piece of undeveloped property in the Manhattan theater district.
Donated by the Schubert Organization for temporary use by the APF, the land is the latest to fall prey to art-world designs in this wonderfully crass neighborhood. Guests could escape the blustery winds at a reception for the artist at the Playwright Celtic Pub next door. Festooned with paper shamrocks in anticipation of Saint Patrick’s Day, this old New York tavern powered the pumps (which visitors could see through the windows) via a long cable from its basement, while waiters passed fried chili peppers and sliders to a complement of friends and supporters who included Meckseper’s dealer Andrea Rosen; collector and expectant father Glenn Fuhrman; Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer; artist friends like John Currin, Rachel Feinstein, Lisa Yuskavage; and of course Richard Phillips, Meckseper’s supportive other half.
Meyer would also be on the scene the following night, to unveil the newly restored mural Keith Haring painted in 1989 on the walls of a bathroom in the West Village’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. At the same time, the Swiss Institute hosted the opening of two separate interventions into its new digs in Jeffrey Deitch’s old space in SoHo.
The Swiss-born Glaswegian artist Nicolas Party gave the walls of the front gallery a once-over with cockeyed patches of blue stripes, while curator Pati Hertling, asked to reconfigure the large back space, brought in Oscar Tuazon and his brother Elias Hansen for the job. They tore out the floor and stacked the lumber into discrete sculptures, while artists Zoe Leonard, Klara Lidén, and Adam Pendleton supplied images suggesting other uses for public space on the surrounding walls. As Hertling’s pals repaired to a nearby karaoke bar, Lisson Gallery’s Nicholas Logsdail got the jump on Armory Show parties with a cozy dinner for gallery artists like Lawrence Weiner, Ryan Gander, and Spencer Finch, friends (Martin Klosterfelde, Public Art Fund director Nicholas Baume), and staff at the Standard Hotel.
When I arrived at Pier 94 for the fair’s VIP preview the next day, it was immediately clear that the looming threat of Frieze New York, scheduled to open in early May, had made a difference—to the experience of fair-going, that is. A redesign by architects Bade Stageberg Cox provided a soundproof VIP lounge (where the food was appreciably better, if no less outrageously priced), and wider aisles that were filled with open-wallet types perusing the 120 booths, 25 percent fewer than last year. “Everything’s already sold,” said collector Raymond Learsy, who was just getting started with Melva Bucksbaum at 4 PM. “I’m just following the crowd,” said nonexhibiting dealer Jay Gorney, emerging from Sprüth Magers’s closet, so crowded it resembled the Marx Brothers’ stateroom in A Night at the Opera. Also leaving the booth on his way to the fair exit was Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs. “I just bought a wonderful Rosemarie Trockel drawing,” Wachs said, rubbing his palms together with glee.
Over the next few hours, however, I still heard complaints, mostly about the quality of the material on hand, which nonetheless continued to feed the still-hungry market. Los Angeles dealer Susanne Vielmetter, a purveyor of rigorously conceptual, hard-to-sell ideas, was literally flush from fending off buyers for works by Whitney Biennial artist Nicole Eisenman, Martin McMurray, and others. “We have the closet filled with paintings so we can rehang every day,” Vielmetter said. The fair’s best-looking booth, a red-carpeted stand shared by galleries Greene Naftali, Krinzinger, and Guido W. Baudach, attracted enthusiasts for the artist Bjarne Melgaard, who had painted Frederick Kiesler furniture and emblazoned the names of queer theorists on four new canvases.
Artist Tomory Dodge was on hand to talk about the abstract paintings that CRG Gallery was selling out before his eyes, but Theaster Gates, who fulfilled his commission as the designated 2012 Armory Show artist by talking to people at Chicago’s Kavi Gupta stand, was nowhere to be seen when I passed by.
I did see Conceptualist pioneer Joseph Kosuth, who was shaking his head at what he called “all the neon” here, though I saw little besides the large pink SCANDINAVIAN PAIN sign hoisted by Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson at the head of the nineteen-gallery-strong Nordic section, organized by Malmö Konsthall director Jacob Fabricius. The sign, Kjartansson said, was there to honor the north countries’ ages-old investment in the culture of angst made famous by Strindberg, Ibsen, and Bergman. “It’s luxury pain these days,” Kjartansson noted of the now prosperous region.
As far as I could tell, everyone was selling nearly everything, except perhaps for Parisian dealer Laurent Godin, who risked derision by bringing New York a booth full of Osama bin Laden busts by Wang Du. “It’s one of the more difficult works,” Godin conceded, while also calling it a “healthy” presentation. It was not very crowded there.
I couldn’t even wedge my way into Sean Kelly’s booth, hard by the entrance, where artists Janaina Tschäpe, Charles LeDray, Pat Steir, Kosuth, and collector Tony Podesta converged all at once. In the nonprofit section, a performer identified as “Shoplifter” and clothed only in synthetic colored wigs was opening and closing her naked legs in a booth shared by Copenhagen’s Overgaden and the Living Art Museum from Reykjavik. At 5 PM, contortionist-dancers choreographed by Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen climbed into stretchy white bags to perform Amorphous Assemblage between fairgoers on the Nordic section’s floor. Few took time out to watch this live presentation, though several tripped over the seeing-eye dog sculpture by Tony Matelli parked outside Leo Koenig’s booth.
Perhaps the dancers’ movements were too disconcerting, unlike the four not-for-sale videos at the Nyehaus/Loretta Howard booth. Cobbled together from hours of previously forgotten footage by octogenarian writer James Salter, the films dated from 1962 and 1963 and showed Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, and Larry Rivers at work in their studios. Together they amounted to one of the fair’s few peak moments. If the Armory Show is going to hold its ground, it will have to turn a new page on boldness as well as amenities.
The day’s big page-turner, however, turned out to be artist Lucy Dodd, who made her New York solo debut with Alexander May on Wednesday night, at Balice Hertling & Lewis’s cramped gallery in the theater district’s Film Center Building. During the opening, the engaging Dodd commandeered volunteers like artists John Miller and Aura Rosenberg to help turn the monumental, sand-painted canvas pages of a book that took up most of the exhibition space, while she told the story of what she called the “ass-nosed mole.” Writer Anthony Haden-Guest approved. “Conceptual art should tell stories,” he said. “Well, maybe not all of it,” he added after a pause.
At the raucous afterparty, held in a dive piano bar on West Forty-sixth Street called Don’t Tell Mama, Dodd was unceremoniously asked to leave the stage when she tried to offer a song. “It’s my party!” she protested, visibly upset. The neighborhood may be devoted to show business, but if the art mole is really going to make a dent, it has to burrow a little deeper.