Criticism
Thursday, June 1st, 2006

The 2006 New York Armory Show


The 2006 New York Armory Show:

Piers 90 and 92
12 Ave at 50 & 52 Street
New York City

March 10-13, 2006

The Not So Sweet Smell of Success

Valerie Hegarty Still Lives with Crows 2006 acrylic on paper, 4 x 4 feet each of two panels Courtesy Guild & Greyshkul, NY

What can be said of a fair that was enormously successful financially while being aesthetically unsatisfying? Fair officials reported that more than 47,000 collectors, critics, and curators flocked to Piers 90 and 92 and spent more than $62 million, up from $45 million last year. “Feeding frenzy”, a term used by gallerists and collectors alike to describe Art Basel/Miami just three months earlier, seemed just as fitting here. So, why did we have a hard time liking the show? One could simply dismiss our evaluation by saying that our taste was out of step with that of the current crop of collectors. But, we think that our reaction may be more than just personal taste; it is a matter of the overall quality of the work in the show.

Fortunately, there are some benchmarks one can invoke that lend credence to our assertion. Specifically, in regard to quality, which is largely what we mean by aesthetically unsatisfying, there was the recent ADAA show at the 67rd Street Armory in February. In that show, there was a high correlation between the caliber of the artists and the examples of their work shown; i.e., good artists were represented by good works whether the artists were no longer living masters like Mark Rothko, Georgio Morandi, and Milton Avery or strong contemporary painters like Alex Katz and Stephen Westfall. Comparisons can also be made between the current Armory show and last year’s Armory Show; last year, both the artists sampled and the quality of the examples were better. For example, over the years, the Armory Show has exhibited very strong examples of the Scottish painter, Callum Innes, but not so this year, where the examples were undistinguished. Similarly, the Anish Kapoor and Julian Opie’s were not as strong. It was as if the stock of first-rate works had been exhausted.

By way of comparison, there were several concurrent one-person shows in New York galleries showing first-rate examples of first-rate painters (e.g. Dan Walsh at Paula Cooper, Thomas Nozkowski at Max Protech). If the Armory Show had to be characterized in a few words it represented the final capitulation of high art to low art. Alas, Andy Warhol would be high art in this context. If this sounds as if your reviewers are not politically correct, we confess to being guilty. We still believe in quality. It is not that we long for the sublime, just for well done art dealing with significant issues, be they aesthetic or topical. However, if one is not inclined to care about such matters, the show can be great fun. For us, the treasure hunt had a handful of gems to be found among the more than 2500 works on view.

Redeeming Features

If, at past New York Armory Shows, young Germans were featured and often excelled, this fair had a number of excellent galleries from Paris showing a range of witty and intriguing work. Our favorite was Galerie Frank Elbaz who showed the work of two artists unfamiliar to most New Yorkers—Olivier Babin (whose work is discussed in the Postmodern Minimalism Section below and Davide Balula who did a multi-media installation featuring David Warren’s all-important “black box”.This is a typical piece for Balula whose work centers around the interplay of sound, electronics and visual forms in an attempt to actively involve the viewer who is exposed to objects taken out of context.

Some Very Good Painting

While the overall quality of painting at the Fair was disappointing, a growth area of ingenuity and creativity lies in the kind of high-tech beauty that Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe sees on TV and computer screens; it lurks on Photoshop and relishes glamour. The fair shone with the banality, not of evil, but of beauty—a model of beauty derived from the high tech world that captures our cultural moment. An eccentrically-shaped abstract painting by Aaron Curry at David Kordansky Gallery, for example,sat on the floor in a corner and glowed like a neon sign. Also appealing was Benjamin Edward’s painting at Greenberg Van Doren Gallery that used a dynamic deep space to create a glamorous urban landscape with multiple, superimposed images of fashionable people and fashionable architecture in a juxtaposition of urban utopia and dystopia.

An exciting geometric abstraction by Changha Hwang at Galería Marta Cervera used linear shapes with Gilbert-Rolfe’s type of high-tech colors. This painting synthesized Hofmann’s push-pull with the kind of rhythmic sensation of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie taking them both to a higher power. There was even a Postmodern version of Rothko: Harland Miller’s painting at White Cube/Jay Jopling that used a Rothko composition frame, a lonely penguin, and words that played with the fact that the painter both designs covers for Penguin Books and writes novels for them. And for those devotees of good old straight painting, there was an exquisite shaped canvas by Sylvia Plimack Mangold from 1968 at Alexander and Bonin that did more than depict a floor; you felt like you could walk right up the wall. Perhaps, however, it is the younger painters who have the most to teach us. Works such as Miller’s and Edwards’ demonstrate that it is possible to juggle figurative and abstract elements successfully within the same painting.

Sex in the City

Agnes Thurnauer Love Intercourse 2006 acrylic on canvas; 46 1/2 x 35 inches Courtesy Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot, Paris

This was a Fair that flaunted sexuality. Amongst a plethora of crass, gratuitous displays of vaginas were also exemplary explorations of the erotic theme: Agnes Thurnauer’s painting, “Love Intercourse” at Galerie Ghislaine Hussenot was a take off on Manet’s barmaid at the Folies-Bergère that captured both her sadness and her sexiness, augmented by superimposed sentences that represented a range of sexual propositions—Postmodernism at its best. Then there was the self-confident, “I am in control” sexiness of Hanna Wilke (1974-1993) whose works at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, Inc. included photos, a video, and vagina-like ceramics. If there was any doubt about sexual tease being a major trend at the Fair, the theme artist was John Wesley who is the master of amusing sexual send-ups.

More Postmodern Minimalism

We introduced the category of Postmodern Minimalism in our review of last year’s Armory Show: the artist takes a minimalist master such as Judd, Andre or Flavin and introduces a content dimension to compromise the purity of the minimalist aesthetic. One of the best examples in this category was an Andre-like series of 48 orange, blue and white bathroom scales arranged on the floor by Jacob Dahlgren at Galleri Charlotte Lund. A second strong example was Olivier Babin’s open black suitcase at Galerie Frank Elbaz. Sitting on the floor containing 10 narrow colored Moreno glass lights arranged in the order of a rainbow, it both simulates the visual punch of a Dan Flavin sculpture and takes it back to its commercial origins of a sampler of colors carried by a traveling bulb salesman. Also at the Fair was one of the pioneers of Postmodern Minimalism, Daniel Buren, who turns the traditional puritanical aesthetic of Minimalism into a funhouse of mirrors. Buren’s playful and visually satisfying pink and white striped wall installation at Galleria Continua seems endless; you step into a little alcove and are engulfed by what appears to be a long narrow corridor. This is smart art.

Photos Yes, But Not All German

Photography was well represented at this year’s fair with some new names. Rodney Graham’s “Allegory of Folly: Study for an Equestrian Monument in the Form of a Wind Vane” at the 303 Gallery is an at once haunting and monumental diptych transparency in a lighbox. The black-clad imperial figure of Erasmus is sitting backwards on his horse while reading a book. The legless white horse is mounted on a small stage at the top of two black steps, an arresting meditation on folly. Isaac Julien’s photograph at Metro Pictures of a man walking in a desert is visually striking. The pinks and blues are delicious with the sun low in the sky, indicating an imminent change in temperature—either to a hot desert sun or cold desert darkness. Jacob Dahlgren’s predominantly black and white photo, “General and Specific Works” at Galleri Charlotte Lund is no more than a foot square and features a busy urban street scene. Prominent is an orange and grey checked wall which becomes the subject of a very large modular painting displayed alongside it. These photographs are a welcome departure from the cool perfection of the German School.

Video Alive and Well

Most of the videos to be found during the fair were in a separate venue at DIVA in Lower Manhattan, but the Armory Show site had two visually compelling examples: Gary Hill’s astonishing video of a foot disappearing into a book with its pages turning back and forth at Donald Young Gallery, and, taking up the entire back wall of Pier 92, Wolfgang Staehle’s compelling real-time live video projection of Union City, New Jersey, which changed with the weather and the time of day. (Staehle is represented by Postmasters Gallery). It was a beautiful and strange sensation—almost as if the wall didn’t exist and one was looking out at the real scene.

Politics was generally AWOL at this fair, with less than a handful of works commenting on the use of violence as an inappropriate national strategy. In a video taken from Iranian television by Christoph Büchel shown at Maccarone, Inc., tension arose from the juxtaposition of the attractive colors and precision of soldiers marching in tight formation and the content of those formations, which included a swastika and a Star of David.

The Nature of Seeing: Fooling the Eye

Works that are difficult to categorize but repaid close looking included Fred Eerdekens’ quirky, handwritten metal piece at Spencer Brownstone. This looks totally abstract until light from above casts a shadow which forms the words, “A very short story with a lot of fiction in the middle and something real in the end”. At Georg Kargl there was also Gabi Trinkaus’ elegant portrait of a woman who turns out to be built up from the smallest collage units one could imagine. The overall impact is like a Chuck Close portrait seen from across a large room.

Panache and Wit

Another positive feature of the Fair was a good sampling of artists who produce works that have a certain degree of panache and wit. William Copley’s delightful coffee table chess set (after Breton) with wine decanters as chess pieces at Nolan/Eckman Gallery was a highlight. Copley was a close friend of Duchamp’s and loved his humor and his ability to make his life a work of art. Copley, although better known as a painter, gets this riff on readymades just right—it is sculptural, conceptual, and just plain fun.

Tony Feher’s eccentrically ingenious wall piece at D’Amelio Terras is made from blue painter’s tape and exists in the same visual field as his apparent take off on Eva Hesse’s rope-like piece, “Right After,” inspired in turn by Jackson Pollock. Feher’s version is bright red with a piece of string suspending a bottle. There is also a wild two-part installation by Valerie Hegarty at Guild & Greyshkul Gallery that referenced a 19th century trompe l’oiel still life, this one replete with stuffed crows. Nicely crafted and tightly structured, it yielded both a Poe-like eeriness and an amusing quality.

Then for reasons we don’t understand, this year, like last year, there is an interest in doors. We counted a least five full size examples–all different and all interesting. Two of the wittiest were Rodney Graham’s glitzy entirely sterling silver door at Lisson Gallery made from Elvis Presley’s actual screen door at Graceland and Terence Koh’s door at Peres Projects which contained a bit of black humor. Koh’s door opened into an all black glossy room with a light above a urinal—perhaps another tribute to Duchamp.

The Role of Art Fairs

Finally, when all is said and done, what is at issue here is the relevance and status of quality. Should art fairs simply hold up the mirror to current trends or should they try to set trends? Or more directly, has quality become irrelevant in this time of voracious buying appetites? The long established ADAA Show and the four-year old Basel/Miami fairs say no; the Armory Show, with us since 1994, if we judge by what art was exhibited this year, says yes. In closing, we offer a simple definition of quality—first-rate artists represented by first-rate works. Is this too much to ask?


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