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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."

 

THE ART FAIRS OF (MOSTLY) EARLY MARCH, AND DARBY BANNARD'S BRILLIANT INSIGHT

Willem de Kooning. Untitled (Still Life with Eggs and Potato Masher), 1928-1929. Oil and sand on canvas, 18 x 24 inches. (c) Estate of Willem de Kooning, Courtesy of Forum Gallery, New York.
Following CAA, the next avalanche of art-world “news” to descend onto Manhattan was the art fairs that took place between March 4 & 8. The two original and most conspicuous were The Armory Show, on Piers 92 & 94 in the Hudson River, and The Art Show, at the Park Avenue Armory, but there were about ten others.

Together, these dozen offered more than 700 booths—of dealers from all over the world, plus a few nonprofits, publications, and one fair where the art was presented by “curators.” Though there was also video, performance and participatory art, most work on view was small to medium-sized two- and three-dimensional objects: paintings, sculpture, collages, assemblages, & photography.

Art on Paper, the newest fair, offered work on a similar scale whose common denominator was – or claimed to be—paper.

All this relatively modestly-sized two- and three-dimensional work was the kind of art that could easily be brought by collectors and even installed in their homes (assuming they had the space & didn’t want to hustle off to the auction block with it right away).

A lot of this art was what both Walter Darby Bannard and I unkindly think of as “tchotchkes,” but a small amount of it represented serious art that aimed to be around for a while.

I got to five of these shows. Two were obligatory: The Armory Show, with about 200 booths, and The Art Show, with about 70 more. Volta, with about 90 booths, and Spring Break, with about 80, had been recommended to me, so I checked them out, too.

Finally, I got to Art on Paper, as Gallery Sam from the Bay Area of California was one of its 60+ exhibitors, and I’ve found work I liked at this gallery’s booth at other art fairs.

FIRST, PIER 94 AT THE ARMORY SHOW

Although Pier 94 at The Armory Show was devoted to “the contemporary,” I didn’t see anything radical. True, booths allotted to Middle Eastern galleries as a “Focus Group” had living plants and installations. Then again, I’ve been following both “earthworks” and installations since the 1960s (when installations were known as “environments”).

I was impressed by how many paintings I saw on Pier 94, and how many of these paintings were abstracts, though only a few of these abstracts stood out for their quality. Among those that did was Frank Bowling’s “Soft Sunday” (1976), at Hales of London, dominated by soft greens and rusts.

Another abstract I liked was a smallish gray on gray one by Kianja Strobert at Jack Tilton, and finally, a 2014 abstract with sweeping silver, gold and sparkling areas by John Armleder at Massimo De Carlo of Milan— even though Armleder, a native of Switzerland, is far better known as a member of the dada-oriented Fluxus group and performance artist.

Armleder wasn’t the only artist best known for dada-oriented art who appeared to have turned to the tchotchke market to subsidize it. At the booth shared by Monitor of Rome, NY, and Mor Charpentier of Paris, my eye was caught by an abstract with a sweep of mustard-colored acrylic and a dramatic white daub across it. It looked like a Dan Christensen, but turned out to be by Liliana Porter, a Latino artist who again is better known for installations, videos and “theater”.

Upon closer examination, I also (sadly) discovered that the artist had diluted the impact of her paint surface by scattering little toy objects across it—tiny chairs, a Mickey Mouse, etc.

Indeed, borrowing and/or mocking a modernist style—aka investing again in “art for art’s sake” --- aka re-exploring “derivative is the new original” --- seemed to be another leitmotif of Pier 94. Martha Schwendener, who covered the Armory Show for The New York Times on March 6, dwelt upon it at length.

“Call it a hangover, historical whiplash, or just déjà vu all over again,” she reported. "But the current Armory Show is rife with quotations and cross-referencing across periods, styles and continents.”

She described three examples of this genre, only one of which duplicated the three that I’d made notes upon, but why belabor the point? I think I’ve already dealt with this kind of art enough.

Practicing the commonest brand of proscription, Schwendener made no reference to all the abstract paintings on Pier 94. Also, I missed seeing any of those Chinese painters with the marvelous combination of fanciful ideas and sound academic technique that has been such a delight at recent Armory shows. Is the vogue for them gone by?

QUICK (PARENTHETICAL) UPDATE:
HEADLINE NEWS FROM THE FRIEZE
& YOKO ONO


(To make a slight detour, and move BRIEFLY on up to the recent past, I report that participatory art seems to be is the latest novelty to have supplanted both the Chinese and “art for art’s sake.” At any rate, this appears to be the case, to judge from the stories in The New York Times for May 15 by Ken Johnson & Martha Schwendener reviewing the Frieze Art Fair on Randall’s Island, which is separated from Manhattan by the Harlem River and from Queens, by the East River.

Both critics were able to come up with two examples of participatory art (aka interactive art). The more interesting two of the four were by Jonathan Horowitz at Gavin Brown, with equipment that enabled visitors to make a minimalist painting, and by Pia Camil, in a display organized by Cecilia Alemani, director of public art on the High Line, that involved giving away free ponchos and capes.

To be sure, participatory (aka interactive) art isn’t new, either. “To Be Looked at (from the Other Side of the Glass) with One Eye, Close to, for Almost an Hour,” is the full & interactive title for the 1918 assemblage by Marcel Duchamp better known as “The Small Glass,” and, by the 1960s, interactive art appears to have been all over the place.

At any rate, I draw this conclusion from its frequent appearance in “Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960-1971” at the Museum of Modern Art (through September 7).

Among the interactive pieces cited on Page One of the press release for the Ono show are the self-explanatory “Painting to Be Stepped On” (1960/61) and “Bag Piece” (1964), which consists of visitors being invited to enter a cloth bag.

If these didn’t make headlines in the early 60s, it may have been because Ono, though born in then-exotic Tokyo in 1933, had gone to Sarah Lawrence and seems to have been only a minor figure in the crowded world of conceptual artists at that time.

Around 1965 or 1966, though, she met John Lennon, the Beatle, becoming his collaborator, second wife, & ascending to the status of pop icon herself. Nor has her status diminished since his murder in 1980—if anything, she is more of a legend than ever.

I attended the press conference in one of MoMA’s theaters at the media preview for Ono’s show. Every seat was taken. At the photo op before the press conference, Ono stood still at the front of the stage and looked natty as could be, even at 82.She’s short, dark and was wearing dark glasses and a chic little hat, cocked at a jaunty angle. She had on a dark brown leathery jacket with gold buttons and zippers.

At least half, maybe two-thirds of the heavily-female audience whipped out their smart phones and took pictures of her (a crowded row of professional cameras on tripods also stood across the back of the theater, behind the seats). The press conference itself was routine, so I won’t waste space on it. But it was fun, seeing a genuine pop icon.)

PIER 92 AT THE ARMORY SHOW

Pier 92 at the Armory Show is officially devoted to “the modern,” but alas “the modern” is getting to be defined as “any art of the past sixty years except for the most recent and/or cutting edge.” If any top-quality, genuine modernism makes the cut, that’s incidental.

I saw some things I liked, but more than I wanted of: David Park, Tom Wesselman, Sam Francis, Alexander Calder, Roy Lichtenstein & Norman Bluhm.

Galerie Thomas Modern of Munich is evidently attempting to revive two moribund postmodernist movements from the 1980s, Neo-Geo and Neo-Expressionism. It was showing work by Peter Halley, Georg Baselitz & Anselm Kiefer. Lots of luck!

What I did like:
1) Two out of three works on paper from the 1960s by Lee Krasner, at James Barron, private dealer from South Kent, CT;
2) Elegant 1969 Frankenthaler, nice Gottlieb 1949 pictograph, another good ‘60s Krasner on paper, and a deliciously tiny Bolotowsky, 1937-38, all at John Berggruen of San Francisco;
3) Good-looking 1927 Gorky abstract at Allan Stone, New York;
4) Gutsy little Hofmann oil on board, 1961, at Hackett-Mill of San Francisco;
5) Vaguely interesting representational painting by Sabina Sakoh, German artist (b.1968), at Galerie Michael Schultz of Berlin;
6) Frankenthalers, 1961 & 1985, at Antoine Helwaser, New York;
7) Pioneering 1912 Max Weber, “Four Figures (Sisters),” also Frank Wimberly & Dan Christensen, at Gerald Peters, New York;
8) Large 2013 Poons at Danese/Corey of New York;
9) Selection of works on paper by Joan Miró, mostly late & blurry but few good early ones, at Mayoral Galeria d’Art, Barcelona;
10) Smaller, quite attractive 1971 Frankenthaler, at Hollis Taggart, New York;
11) Large, impressive 1963 Larry Rivers, “Here Lies Shakespeare,” good 1962 Hofmann gouache, sweet little 1941 Arthur Dove, dandy 1950 Gottlieb pictograph, all at James Goodman, New York.

VOLTA

The first of the three satellite fairs I attended was Volta. It seems to have one very much admired by all the In types, to judge from the enthusiasm showered upon it by my very In dermatologist, who collects contemporary photography & is even on some museum acquisition committees.

(Though I must confess, he appeared a little distressed when I told him what I'd seen when I paused in the Volta cafe to drink a can of soda pop. Seated right next to me was a lovely young woman with a very small child who was howling his head off. To quiet him, she loosened her sweater & tucked his head under it, so that he could get some lunch. She really didn't expose any of her flesh, though, it was all quite suitable, maybe not for the street but certainly for a secluded venue such as this.)

Anyway, Volta was located on Pier 90, right next to the Armory Show, and was the best organized fair that I attended. All the booths were nicely lined up, and most featured only one artist.

All the booths had identical little brochures describing the art and artists in them, and copies of each brochure were neatly stacked at the entrance to its booth, so I could just trot along and whip each brochure from its rack as I passed.

Unfortunately, almost none of the work impressed me, nor did I recognize the names of any of these artists except for Thomas Nozkowski, whom I’ve never been enthusiastic about.

The only artist who appealed to me was a local product. Ryan Schneider, a Brooklyn-based painter, was featured by Two Rams, a gallery on the Lower East Side. Schneider took his BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art in 2002, and was displaying large and colorful, semi-abstract and semi-primitive pictures, very decorative.

SPRING BREAK

Spring Break was the most disorganized art fair that I attended – but also one that captured some of the excitement one associates with a genuine avant-garde. It was held in a rabbit warren of little offices and office spaces on the upper floors of Moynihan Station, the big post office building at the corner of 31st Street and 8th Avenue, and instead of dealers, the people overseeing each exhibit were called “curators.”

Everybody (including the curators) seemed to be young and very intent upon what they were doing. I got a feeling of passionate commitment out of their shows, an impression which told me that to be flippant about such art would be to misunderstand it.

For the most part, these were deeply moral people who believed devoutly (with Duchamp) that art should have a meaning or a message—and that this mattered more than how it looked or how long it would last. It was kind of a through-the-looking-glass sensation for me.

True, I saw almost nothing that I would want in my home--but I arrived late on the final evening that I could attend, so I got to see only a fraction of what was there.

I did see two examples of ingenious participatory art, and two cases where an artist primarily committed to installations or participatory art was also offering quite conventional and not unattractive representational pictures for sale.

The two artists whose more conventional work l liked were Rachel Rossin and Mira Aldridge – though it’s possible that their work may contain hidden & less attractive qualities.

I say this upon the basis of another exhibit that I initially admired, in another exhibition area, a white-painted bicycle with brightly-colored plastic flowers on it by Jason Clay Lewis. I thought it was quite pretty, but then I asked the curator for the title. It turned out to be “Shakespeare’s Ghost,” so named because it was a “ghost bike,” similar to those left around the city as memorials to people who had been killed riding bikes.

A piece of paper attached to the art work explained the relevance of the title, for it quotes a passage from “Richard II,” in which the king laments the loss of his kingdom: “Cry woe, destruction, ruin and decay: The worst is death, and death will have his day.”

And it was such a pretty bike! But there was a worm in this apple.

AND AT THE ART SHOW…..

The Art Show, where it all began, was the best place to see earlier modernism, in some ways even better than the “modern” pier at the Armory Show. That said, I must add that there wasn’t as much earlier modernism as I would have liked to see, given the blue-chip nature of so many of the galleries represented here.

When I’d made all or most of my rounds, I looked at the little diagram of galleries, and circled those who were displaying art created prior to 1950. Out of 80+ galleries, only about 15 qualified.

Among the shows worthy of mention, Washburn had a couple of small, agonized Picasso-like drawings by Jackson Pollock, dating from ca. 1942, and accompanied by an excerpt from a letter by Jackson’s brother Sanford (Sandy) to his other artistically-oriented brother, Charles, detailing Jackson’s emotional problems but insisting that if he could hold himself together, his work would become of “real significance.”

The display at Yares Art Projects of Santa Fe was as usual a pleasure to see, centering this time on a gorgeous Morris Louis “unfurled,” “Gamma Alpha,” from 1960….Also a handsome 1964 stain painting by Jules Olitski, and a vigorous, vibrant Hofmann from 1963.

Allan Stone had a whole mini-museum of works by that enigmatic prophet, John Graham, dating from 1926 through 1945.

The historical art exhibited by Thomas Colville, of Guilford CT, included seven small but ingratiating pictures by Whistler, as well as work by Maurice Denis & Walter Sickert.

Celebrating its 75th anniversary, Galerie Saint-Etienne presented images of women by Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Heckel, Dix, & Schmitt-Rotluff.

Meredith Ward had an enchanting cache of Marin, while Mary-Ann Martin offered an appealing semi-cubist painting from 1914 by Diego Rivera.

John Berggruen of San Francisco, with his second booth for Art Week, splashed all 20 Matisse cut-outs from “Jazz” of 1947 across his back wall.

Mnuchin had a beautiful Morris Louis “veil” from 1958, “Tzadik”.

CRG had an interesting display of small hard-edged abstracts from the 1940s and 1950s by Saloua Raouda Choucair, a pioneering abstractionist in her native Lebanon, still going strong at the age of 99.

James Goodman, again with his second booth for Art Week, put on view two winning Matisse drawings, “Head” from 1936 and “Lydia à la blouse” from 1939, also a sweet late (1971) Chagall in mixed media, showing a demure nude presented with a bouquet of cyclamen, an attractive late Anthony Caro table piece from 1983, and messy though not bad Gottlieb from 1956. The prize piece, next to the desk, consisted of a very fine untitled Arshile Gorky drawing, ca. 1944-45.

The last gallery I managed to get to on Friday night, before the lights went out, was that enormously stimulating lineup of early de Kooning, John Graham & Gorky at Forum, in front of which I was able to have that soothing conversation with another critic that I wrote about in the second of my two reports on CAA (the one posted on June 1).

The charms of these three key paintings was further enhanced by the paintings on either side of them: a Stuart Davis semi-abstract still life from 1922, and a magnificent large Gorky “enigma” painting from the mid-1940s. Still, the de Kooning with its vintage potato ricer had a quiet enchantment all its own.

(FAST FORWARD: COMMENTARY ON THE AUCTION MARKET

Pretty much everything else at The Art Show was the more fashionable sorts of recent art, including some typical crotch art by Tracy Emin at Lehmann Maupin, and an exercise in “derivative is the new original” at Sperone Westwater, where Barry X. Ball was represented by a shiny 24-K plated miniature version of Boccioni’s “Unique Forms of Continuity in Space.”

In a way, all this is not too surprising, given how that the art market has been going wild, wild, wild with the big May auctions in New York.

On May 14, the New York Times reported – on Page One.—that Christie’s had had its first $1 billion week The next day, May 15, the Wall Street Journal reported --also on Page One – that during the past two weeks, Christie’s and Sotheby’s between them had sold roughly $2.5 billion worth of modern, impressionist and contemporary art.

The Times illustrated its story (by Scott Reyburn) with images of more recent art (Basquiat, Warhol). The Wall Street Journal's piece (by Kelly Crow) chose instead to illustrate its story with an image of high-priced earlier art (a stellar Mondrian). Is this significant?

Certain things appear to be clear—first, that the current art market is for the first time surpassing its previous record of total sales from 2007. Second, that it’s more global than ever. Over the years, the nouveau riche from different countries outside of Europe and the U.S. have had their impact—first Japanese, then Arab, then Russian and now Chinese.

Third, as Neil Irwin also noted drily in the NY Times for May 14, the art market also benefits from the growth of income inequality in the U.S.

Much, maybe most of this new money appears to be forked over by investors, as opposed to genuine art lovers. These people are parking their money in art because they think it will appreciate faster than either the stock market or the market for real estate—but this may or may not be true.

Fads come and go, and somebody who bought Julian Schnabel at the peak of his fame in the 1980s may not be all that happy with how much his paintings have (or haven’t) appreciated in price since.

The Wall Street Journal article emphasized how capricious the market could be—offering peak prices for one picture by an artist, but refusing to buy another by the self-same artist.

I found more interesting another article by Reyburn that ran in the Times for March 25. It quoted Loci Gouger, of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department, suggesting that the market might be moving away from ultra-contemporary art and back toward earlier art.

For example, on May 11, a 1955 Picasso from that artist’s “Femmes d’Alger” series set a new auction record when it sold at Christie’s for $179.4 million. The previous record had been set in 2013, when Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” from 1969 sold for $142.4 million.

Older, of course, doesn’t necessarily mean better—I’m profoundly unimpressed with that particular Picasso. Still, it might not be such a bad idea to have the market stand back a little, and start to reward a little more work that has stood the test of time.)

ART ON PAPER

The fifth art fair that I attended was Art on Paper, at Pier 36 on the Lower East Side. This pier juts out into the East River, far from the other art fairs in town, and the show itself –which occupied a large and immaculately clean space -- was just as removed from them in spirit.

In theory, it was meant to showcase dealers and artists “who look to paper as a major influence in their sculpture, drawing, painting and photography.” But the medium was only part of the message.

The organizer was Art Market Productions, led by Max Fishko & Jeffrey Wainhause, and – although this was their maiden foray into Manhattan -- they have organized art fairs elsewhere: in San Francisco, Seattle, Houston, Miami and the Hamptons on Long Island.

I’ve only attended the one in the Hamptons, but I was struck by how much it – and the other art fairs that I’ve attended in the Hamptons – seemed to be less interested in displaying the more popular kinds of oddities — videos, performance, installations, or celebrity tchotchkes.

Instead, they were displaying blue-ribbon color-field painting and the less adventurous kinds of art that ordinary people might hang in their homes—not least over the couch, a place traditionally scorned by avant-gardists.

The galleries, too, at such fairs were different. Big Chelsea galleries like Hauser & Wirth or Lehmann Maupin, the kind that get their shows reviewed by the NY Times and lend lots of work to those oh-so-up-to-the-minute retrospectives at the Guggenheim or Whitney, were conspicuous by their absence.

Instead, I noticed many smaller and mostly unknown ones (probably some of them private dealers). The same appeared to be true of Art on Paper, both in terms of the galleries and the work on view.

Oh, sure, there was some conceptual, constructed and/or deliberately crude work. Featured prominently – at the entry – were a few huge, free-standing, quasi-cubist cardboard & mixed media humanoids by Wayne White, a Los Angeles-based artist represented here by Joshua Liner of New York.

Much more typical, though, were the attractive color photographs of trees by Robert Voit at Clamp Art of New York and the equally attractive dark landscape photographs by Adam Katseff at Sasha Wolf of New York, as well as quite a large number of abstract paintings and prints.

Outstanding in this category (as anticipated) was the display at Gallery Sam of paper pieces by Ronnie Landfield, Roy Lerner, Lauren Olitski & Francine Tint, complemented by equally or more colorful ones by Justyn Zolli, a younger Bay Area artist, and Neo-Tantric renderings by Om Pradash, a Indian best known in the 1960s.

Targeted, as Art on Paper was, toward young collectors on limited budgets, it had practically no booths showing art from periods past.

The big exception was Forum, whose display here was almost as distinguished here as the one at The Art Show, with 6 delicious little pencil or watercolor views by Oscar Bluemner done between 1904 and 1921, a typically ghastly Odd Nerdrum 1989 charcoal, a ghostly 1964 de Kooning monotype and oil of a female nude, and more.

DARBY BANNARD’S BRILLIANT INSIGHT

Art on Paper, and those Hamptons shows with a similar orientation, chimed in magically with an email I received from Walter Darby Bannard on Thursday, March 5, just as all those art fairs were starting. It was part of an exchange we were having about his upcoming show at Berry Campbell, which you will find reviewed below, in my posting of April 15. Bannard's email ran like this:

“You know 50 years ago I predicted that the different species of art would go their own way and I think it is beginning to happen. The nouveau-riche tchotchke market of the contemporary auctions is moving away from the academic post-modern art magazine market from the over the couch market slowly but surely. They now have almost nothing to do with each other – different markets supported by one huge market. We are basically over the couch, and it would be a kind of irony if this man on the street market turns out to save good art.”

Further querying established that what Bannard meant by “the tchotchke market of the contemporary auctions” is pretty much what I meant by the tchotchke market of the Armory Show’s “contemporary” pier. What he called “the academic post-modern art magazine market” pretty much corresponds to videos, installations, performance are and the like. As to “over the couch,” we modernists are no longer proud: what the hell, if somebody wants to buy it a grand modernist painting, who cares where they hang it?

Bannard’s analysis explains why the market does seem to be improving for color field painting, at any rate for those artists who were fortunate enough to have established their reputations by the 1960s.

It would be nice if their work got bid up to a level where the market was ready to move on to younger artists of the same persuasion. Already there seems to be enough of a market for some of these artists to generate exhibitions of their work, but what is really necessary is to generate more sales.

I was reminded of Bannard’s insight again on March 14, when I saw “Paper Clay” at Ashok Jain on Hester Street in the Lower East Side (closed March 29). I’d been alerted to this group show by Irene Neal, who had five works in it, and I can report that they all looked perfectly swell.

So did the rest of the show, which was about evenly divided between abstract and representational works on paper, with a bit of ceramic sculpture thrown in. Nobody (with the possible exception of a piece with feathers on it) had made any attempt to deliver a message or in any other way conform to postmodernist norms. It was all pure pleasure, strictly for the couch trade, and glorying in it.

Nor was it alone. Returning to the subway along Orchard Street, I passed – and investigated – Artifact, which advertised an installation in its basement, but on its ground floor was showing modest little abstract & semi-abstract pictures and sculpture.

This is not to say that all of the Lower East Side is like this. Also on Orchard Street I’d found McKenzie, apparently one of several on this street which displays Serious if postmodernist Abstraction (see my two postings of March 22 on its Jason Karolak show).

Nor was everything on that block abstract. I passed at least one gallery with a more conceptual show, too. Many galleries hang out in this neighborhood, and the Gallery Guide, which I once relied upon to keep me posted, no longer helps – too many galleries aren’t listed, or won’t tell you what shows they have on. At McKenzie, I was given several brochures with maps and listings of galleries in that neighborhood. I think it might possibly be even more fruitful to simply patrol the neighborhood--sometime when I have more time.

But to return to Bannard’s insight. To it, I add that not only is there an auction market for good painting among “the couch trade” but it seems as though there’s even a whole parallel universe for it, with galleries as well as art fairs and auctions.
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