How many art fairs can you pack into a week? In New York this past week there were at least six, of which the big three were the Art Dealers Association of America’s Art Show, the Armory Show and the Independent. With so much going on at these very different fairs, it was hard to think of them as anything other than one big circus. Though they were all vying for the attention of collectors and other art-world devotees, who went from uptown to downtown and everywhere in between in search of some new artist or just some free food, they each had attractions for everyone.
The week kicked off with the 27th ADAA Art Show, which opened at the Park Avenue Armory in the Upper East Side. A well-heeled crowd of art patrons, museum directors and artists turned out despite the snowy weather for the small fair and famously hors d’oeuvres.. For the most part, the artists on exhibit here — with many single-artist presentations — deal with or extend modernism and its problems. Such problems are the problems of the old guard, and there were loads of them on display. There were works by Picasso, Matisse and Etel Adnan, and while such pieces are nice to look at, they don’t challenge us as they once did; rather, they placate a desire to put an expensive, recognized master on the wall. Still, there were works that somehow felt relevant to current discourse: Nicola Tyson’s drawings of pieced-together, Surrealist-looking forms at Susanne Vielmetter looked almost radical compared to the well-known male artists in other booths. As I thought about the competition for this fair, I wondered why none of the gallerists I spoke to had any complaints or seemed overly stressed; maybe it’s because you can’t argue with money, and that for all the hoopla of the downtown fairs, the ADAA will still be able to provide great catering next year.
The following day the Armory Show opened at Piers 92 and 94, and by the time I showed up in the early afternoon the fair was in full swing. A friend asked if I had seen the “Whirring Dervish” yet, which turned out to bea motorized scooter topped by a Persian rug, manned by Darvish Fakhr, an American-Iranian artist bedecked in a robe and fez. The project, actually titled The Flying Carpet (2015), was part of Focus: MENAM, a section of the Armory dedicated to Middle Eastern, North African and Mediterranean artists and galleries. I’m not sure how big a role Mr. Fahkr’s magic carpet played, but the fair felt a little fresher this year. There were familiar faces, like David Zwirner and Lehmann Maupin, but there were some surprising new additions and returnees, like Regen Projects, Andrew Kreps and Rachel Uffner. The addition of these less lofty galleries helped enliven the atmosphere, and we can thank director Noah Horowitz who, in his four years as director, has definitely made the Armory worth going to again. Artists also had a role to play in this. Take Brad Troemel’s Wall Mount for Vintage Furby Collections (Mint Condition) #1 (2015), which garnered plenty of attention and had more than one viewer taking a selfie or Instagram shot. Popular works like Troemel’s helped put a spring back in the Armory’s step and had me thinking that, unlike the target-shooting game at carnivals, some people can actually win at this one.
The Independent was the third “big” fair to open this past week. The snowy weather didn’t deter visitors from showing up in Chelsea the day after the Armory, and may have even helped the cozy ambiance. The Independent has the air of a high school science fair; it’s small and less imposing than the Armory, and more hip than the Art Show. It’s also arranged differently than the others, doing away with rectilinear booths in favor of a jumble of angled walls that seem to give everyone the same amount of space. But that’s where the equality between galleries ends; all of them were there to make money (and contacts) after all, and while the visitors appear more relaxed than at other fairs, the gallerists often seem tenser — their eyes pull you into their section like a carnival employee entices you to play his game. One booth that had me avoiding eye contact was Real Fine Arts, which had a large purple Cuddle Monster by Stefan Tcherepnin. God knows how many times people posed with it, but I wasn’t sure I could take it seriously — it looked a little too much like a piece that didn’t quite make the cut at a degree show (or a science fair) and was shoved to a corner. But this is the kind of fun, unexpected work you will find at the Independent, and a big part of what makes it one of the best fairs there is. Circus-like or not, the people visiting, showing and working at these three fairs are undeniably entertaining — and maybe I was a little clownish myself.