The Armory Show 2010 – A Safe Bet

100306-armory-show-1The 2010 installment of The Armory Show has come and gone.  Hundreds of galleries from around the world all packed tightly together for a few days on the piers jutting out over the Hudson.  A fitting location as it felt like a sort-of sardine cannery for art.  I walked the entirety of the show on Saturday with friend and art consultant Brian Appel.  Although time with Brian is always enjoyable, and his perspective on art can be both interesting and illuminating, it is usually a bit of  a taxing experience to try to take in all of the art and galleries represented in one day.  A few hours of trudging through each and every row of booths can be a bit overwhelming.  Unfortunately what I was overwhelmed with this year was a general sense of how underwhelming everything was.  Does being overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time cancel each other out and leave one in a state of equilibrium?  Hmmm… interesting to think about… but… no.  It doesn’t.

Sure there were people there and the mood of gallerists seemed pretty upbeat.  But I think what I mean by ‘underwhelming’ is that it all, for the most part, felt pretty safe.  Sure there were a few new and interesting things here and there but most of the art felt like I had seen it before.  Actually, some of it I had seen before.  One of the shows most heavily represented artists this year was Robert Rauschenberg.  The most impressive piece of which was a 35 million dollar wall-sized monster at Gallerie Faurschou in Copenhagen.  Now that I am thinking about it I am wondering what made the piece so impressive.  It’s size?  It’s price?  Or it’s artistic merit?  Ah, the psychology of buying, selling and owning art.  A conversation for another time.  Regardless, Rauschenberg is a blue ribbon artist to be sure.  But definitely not ‘new’.  And safe in that the investment value of his art has long been established.

Also in the ’safe’ category were familiar looking pieces by well known artists.  Or should I say by well known artists’ assistants.  There was a wall of Damien Hirst skull pieces at Paul Stolper, screen printed in glittery metallic inks.  Affordable butterfly kaleidoscopes.  And a few pieces scattered about the show by Hirst and American art powerhouse Richard Prince that looked like a patchwork of several past series all thrown together.  A jumble of pills, dots and skulls or nurses and cowboys.  Take your pick.  Safe investments all.

100306-armory-show-emin-1British art-diva-with-issues Tracy Emin was, as usual, very visible with pieces at several galleries, but all that I saw was neon and embroidery from past years.  Of course it is possible that maybe I missed something, but I worry if it seems like an artist’s output starts to dwindle once they are able to pay their rent on time.  And speaking of artists that have fizzled, why have I not seen anything from Matthew Barney lately?  Sure the Cremaster Cycle was an epic amount of work.  And he scored creative volcano Bjork in the process, but when can we see some new stuff?

Also oddly absent from the festivities were work by both Takashi Murakami and patron saint of the New York art world, Andy Warhol.  As prolific as both of these artists are/were, and as revered as they continue to be… where was their work?  The only piece that came close was a Warhol / Jean-Michel Basquiat collaboration painting.  Was it that all of their work is so tied up in private collections or auction houses that no galleries have any pieces?  Maybe that’s a good sign for Warhol at least.  But for Murakami it would signal the same issue that I fear has overcome Emin and Barney.  Once life gets posh the new work output slows down.

100306-armory-show-bas-1Thankfully there were a few gems in the rough-and-tumble of the show.  Hernan Bas continues to grow in visibility, popularity and acclaim with pieces on display at several galleries.  My favorite of which was ‘For Isadora Duncan’, a little painting, pictured at left, at Victoria Miro Gallery.  Unfortunately it was from the long-ago days of 2005, but it was charming and really lovely.  Another very nice painting that we came across, shown at the top of this post, is ‘Untitled’, 2009 by artist Carla Klein at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York.  We were told that Klein travels around the United States and takes photographs.  She then prints them herself, joins the photographs with adjacent shots and then proceeds to paint from the patch-worked image, printing blemishes and all.  The resulting paintings tend to produce haunting images of austere landscapes.  An America that, despite all of our best efforts, is relatively devoid of meaningful content.  But, nevertheless, an America of our own making.  If trudging up and down all the aisles of the Armory show were meant for me to only come to be introduced to this one artist, then it was worth it.

100306-armory-show-sue-williamsOne last highlight was a piece by artist Sue Williams entitled ‘Age of Aquarius’.  Represented by ‘hot young thing’ New York art powerhouse 303 Gallery, Williams’ painting was a vibrant eye-catcher.  Spending any amount of time in front of it made your brain think that the image was actually out in front of the canvas.  Vaguely reminiscent of Warhol’s camouflage paintings, Williams’ work knows how to make the most of visual stimulation.  My only critique would be that her forms tread relatively close to the forms in the early work of Inka Essenhigh, a personal fave.  Both artists push and pull the boundaries of anthropomorphic association with their blobby form-making.  Sure their work differs in thesis and direction but a visual similarity is there.  Also interesting that they are both represented by 303.  Either way, Essenhigh’s work has developed in a different direction, they are both great artists and 303 is a very good gallery.

The Armory Show always ends for me in a tumult.  There is so much art to see in such a short time that I am left in a mix of emotions.  Redundancy and disappointment annually take their toll.  But thankfully, there are always a few pieces, artists and galleries at the Armory Show that give me hope and keep me coming back for more.  What I would like to see, though, is the organizers of Armory foster an excitement about art and the show that overtakes the entire city.  Not just the Piers.  The argument could be made that if you are not an art-scener you might not have known that there was a major art fair happening in New York City that weekend.  Where are the art installations in public spaces, the parties in hotel lobbies, the strategic placement of guerrilla art by as yet unknown young artists, the celebrity art-buying shopping sprees or the retail brands trying to get a piece of the art-frenzy action?  I am sure it is there in some fashion.  But it never feels as energetic or as urgent as the scene surrounding Art Basel Miami.  But then again, this is New York.  The only things we feel urgently are that our dinner at that new restaurant had better be superlative or that our co-op board approve our renovation plans.  Well… maybe a few other things.  But my point is that I think the Armory Show could do a lot more to bolster its reputation as one of the premier art fairs in the world.  But for now it is what it is.  And I will continue to meet Brian and go check out all of the art at the Armory Show.  Tracy Emin could not have said it better than with her neon piece… ‘I Keep Believing In You”.