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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."



Paul Kasmin booth at "Tefaf New York Spring 2018". Photo by Mark Niedermann
Art fairs frustrate me, because I primarily want to send readers to see the art I'm writing about (as Clement Greenberg said, "All a critic can really do is point," or words to that effect). An art fair is over long before my report goes online. Still as "news," the art fairs are not without merit, so here are belated reports on two this season. One is “The Armory Show,” held as usual on Piers 92 and 94 on the Hudson River from March 8 to 11. The other is "Tefaf New York Spring 2018," which was held for only the second time at the Park Avenue Armory this year from May 2 to 6.

The former struck me as a mass act, and the latter as a class act. Snob that I am, I preferred the latter in its entirety, but the former was certainly not without interest. Indeed, in looking over my report on it, I found that even in its truncated "modern" section, it had a relatively large number of works worth mentioning.


This show included about the same number of booths this year as last year (by my count, about 195 this year, vs. 210 last year) and they came from 31 countries – but there was serious attrition in the number of those booths showing “modern” art as opposed to “contemporary.”

Last year, the entirety of Pier 94 was devoted to the 140-plus booths showing “contemporary,” and the entirety of Pier 92 was devoted to the 70 booths showing “modern.” This year, the show had only about 30 booths showing “modern,” and they occupied only about half of Pier 92 -- the other half being devoted to much the same sorts of “contemporary” that were displayed in the 130+ booths on Pier 94.

I'm not sure exactly why. From the review of the show by Martha Schwendener in the New York Times for March 9, I gather that the old director of the show was replaced following accusations of sexual harassment, and there has been a “shift in focus” under its new director, Nicole Berry.

Schwendener suggested this shift was due to a tightening of the timeline, "to create less of a divide between past and present, between post-World War II art (usually found on the sleepier Pier 92) and newer work.” This would have been okay with her, as she is really only interested in the latest novelties, and anything which isn’t whoop-de-doo, hot off the presses, is “sleepy” in her opinion.

And indeed, the organizers of the show may consider "modern" art (as opposed to "contemporary" art) "sleepy." According to a very interesting recent article by Jerry Saltz on art fairs posted on May 1 at Vulture.com, the dealers who have booths at art fairs are chosen by these organizers, upon the basis of their applicati0ns, and whoever vets these applications is liable to reject entries that they consider "boring."

To judge from what art was on view at the Armory Show, these people who vet the applications must be 22-year-olds intent upon selecting novelty work that will make a "splash" this year and be so shallow that by next year that it can be replaced by some other equally novel "splash." I can easily see how such a person would consider classic modernism "boring."

I myself, being more interested in work that has stood the test of time, am inclined to wonder whether this attrition in the number of “modern” galleries at the Armory Show might not more likely be traced to the possibility that a lot of these galleries have simply concluded that it wasn’t worth their time (or money) to take a booth at the show.

Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that the Armory Show has become a big attraction for younger art lovers, and they now apparently regard it as “date” material. This I didn’t realize until the third day I attended, which was the Saturday.

Arriving around 4:30 pm, I saw this huge long line of predominantly younger people, predominantly in couples, presumably waiting to plonk down their admission fees of $55 per ticket (unless they reserved ahead, in which case they had paid only $47 online).

Schwendener was most taken by the contemporary fiber & textile art, digital art (including site-specific & interactive) and oh yes, the body art – though she did get around to a cursory examination of the painting on Pier 94.

From what I could tell, she never got to the “modern” section on Pier 92 at all. I made a tour of Pier 94 and strolled through the “contemporary” part of Pier 92. Throughout, I found a number of worthwhile entries, though I derived the most satisfaction, as always, from the supposedly “historical” or what I would call more “timeless” booths. However I shall begin with a brief summary of my “discoveries” in recent art.

Foremost among them I would list three massive “Platform Projects,” out of 15 stationed at various locations throughout the show.

The only one that Schwendener and I agreed upon was “So Close” (2018), made by an artist called JR (b. Paris, France, in1983) and presented on a mammoth billboard outside the show (where all the boys & girls waiting to get in were lining up).

An offering from Artsy & Jeffrey Deitch, it utilized blown-up archival footage of immigrants waiting at Ellis Island, updated by collaging onto it photographs of the faces of Syrian refugees that the artist had taken at a refugee camp.

Inside, the second “Platform Project” that I related to was by an American artist Beth Campbell (b. 1971), presented courtesy of Anne Mosseri-Marlio of Basel. This was entitled “dah-dah-dah-dah-dit, dah dah-dah-dah, di-di-di-di-dit” (2018).

The title is Morse code for “9 to 5,” and combines a reference to the 1980 Hollywood movie about sexism in a modern office with a standard piece of office equipment from the 19th century, when women in the humble capacities of switchboard operator and secretary nonetheless controlled the conveyance of information.

The art work itself was a handsome, carefully put-together and movingly nostalgic assemblage of parts of desks, 19th and 20th century, and office equipment (or parts of office equipment) from both periods—including pens, blotters, chairs, a typewriter under a blue cover, an adding machine, a Rolodex, an old-fashioned, flowered china cup, a Morse code machine, a 20th century telephone and a far older wood stove.

A third “Platform Project” that I also thought was exceptionally well done was “Cry Havoc” (2014). It was a masterpiece of needlecraft by Mary Sibande (b.1982 in Barberton, South Africa), offered by Gallery MOMA of Cape Town and Johannesburg, and featured two life-size figures of black women.

One was more conservatively clad in a long blue dress and white apron and kerchief, the other a wild figure in purple surrounded by dangling little purple animals and cascades of long slimy purple snakes. According to the program the figure in purple is Sibande’s “avatar,” and is intended to express “women’s power boiling over,” but it can read in other ways as well.

As to the rest of the “contemporary” part of the Armory Show, there was a variety of oddments, as there always are. The centerpiece, right behind the entrance to Pier 94 and the “Champagne Lounge,” with its rare and precious seating, was the huge booth of Gagosian, with a big display of 27 TV screens, large & small & blinking, together with an antique carved lion.

This was by Nam June Paik (1932-2006), the Korean-American artist who was already being celebrated by my predecessor on Time in 1966 as the father of what was known in those days as “kinetic art.”

Also notable were a couple of “dioramas,” one of an office interior by Roxy Paine at Paul Kasmin, and another, appropriately titled “Pink Forest,” by Patrick Jacobs, at Pierogi.

There was also a lot of painting, more than one would ever guess from Schwendener’s review. A very large proportion of it was abstract, but uninspired abstract, either minimal or messy – and if neither of those, undistinguished in color.

One of the rare exceptions was Frank Bowling’s recent, mellow piece at Hales, but otherwise, the emphasis seemed to me to be on clever ways of making abstract pictures, as opposed to what they looked like – process as opposed to results, the tired dada homily about how the act of making the art is more important than the art itself, or anything can be art if the artist says it is.

To cite just one example, in the booth of Proyectosmonclova from Mexico City hung an abstract painting composed of a lot of vertical rectangles. It was by Gabriel de la Mora, and reminded me of the work of Pat Lipsky, but the colors were all kind of off. Then I read the label and discovered why: it had been made of discarded rubber blankets from offset printing presses.

In the end, most of the best pictures in the contemporary section turned out to be more or less representational as opposed to more or less abstract.

One artist whose work appealed to me was Misheck Masamvu, a native of Zimbabwe (b. 1989) who still lives in its capital, Harare, but has studied in Munich and exhibited at Saõ Paolo. He was represented at the Armory Show by Goodman of Cape Town and Johannesburg, showing colorful and lively though perhaps over-busy semi-abstract oils, “Untitled (Flowerhead)” (2017) and “Studded Forehead” (2017).

Another, even more representational artist whose work I liked was Farley Aguilar, a native of Nicaragua (b. 1980) who lives in Miami and was represented at the Armory Show by Lyles & King, a neophyte gallery on the Lower East Side.

The two large paintings exhibited were based on old photographs: a hunting group of men and some women seated around a table, possibly workers in a Lower East Side sweatshop. The artist’s wiry style was an intriguing cross between Edvard Munch & Larry Rivers.

Finally, to the “modern” at the Armory Show this year. As indicated earlier, it was skinny pickings. To be sure, Bernard Jacobson had his modern masters on Pier 94: Motherwell & (wow!) some lovely Matisse drawings, as well as Sam Francis….but on Pier 92, a number of galleries whose offerings I have admired in previous years were either not there, or else elected to show art that didn’t send me up the wall with delight.

One of the exceptions was Simon Capstick Dale, who had a very interesting small, tentative & delicate Kenneth Noland target from 1959, as well as three top-quality smaller Motherwell “Open” paintings, one very atypical, and a fine 1968 Larry Zox.

Hollis Taggart had a spacious and attractive booth, with three paintings by Hofmann and a large & interesting Still-like abstraction from 1960 by Julius Tobias (1915-1999).

The Hofmann on the partition outside the booth was a lopsided but appealing gouache, “Blue Room and Orange Table” (1942). Of the two more Hofmanns inside the booth, I preferred the lively “Yellow” (1945), with (as might be expected) a rectilinear yellow shape on a black field, with accents of red and green.

The dates of Tobias suggest that he was a contemporary of the first generation of abstract expressionism, but actually he was best known for his minimalist stone sculptures of the 1980s.

Of the two pieces by Gottlieb on view, “Festival,” was a pictograph from 1945, strange but vital with bright reds and blues, as well as mustard and black; the other Gottlieb, hung outside the booth, was an untitled double “burst” from 1967, acrylic on paper and vigorous.

The Baziotes, entitled “The Thinker” was done ca. 1943-44, and preceded the artist’s surrealist period. It was composed intriguingly around three figures, done in a somewhat cubist style. Also included was a late, gauzy Esteban Vicente, late Pousette-Dart, and others.

Hackett Mill of San Francisco composed its booth around two representational painters: Milton Avery & California’s own David Park.

But to me, the real star of their exhibit was “Mistral” (1978), by Helen Frankenthaler, mostly a rusty red but with areas of sienna and brown, and touches of yellow and green. I wish it had been better hung, instead of in the passageway, where people walked right by it and never noticed it.

Gary Nader, a Miami-based dealer with a branch in New York and a specialty in Latin American art, had a grand show of vintage paintings by Cuban-born Wilfredo Lam from the 1940s and Chile-born Eduardo Matta from the 1930s.Both artists developed their mature styles in the crucible of 1930s Parisian surrealism before returning to the New World during World War II.

Helwaser of New York had a classic late Gottlieb “burst” appropriately called “Asterisk on Brown” (1967). It was definitely post-painterly though still retaining its sun above & earth below. The gallery also had another Frankenthaler, “Aqueduct” (1967).

Finally, Crane Kalman of London had a large, good-looking booth with a sculpture by Anthony Caro, two paintings by Friedel Dzubas and two by Hofmann.

The Caro, “Table Piece Y-84 (‘Small Measure’),” (1987), was made of waxed steel and balanced, like so many of Caro’s table pieces, on the edge of its little platform. Very straight and rectangular, it reminded me of “The King Playing with the Queen” (1944), by Max Ernst.

The two paintings by Dzubas were both examples of his small adorable late “sketches,” “Red Rock” (1973), and “Dark Journey” (1975). The larger Hofmann, “Fairytale” (1944), was 5 x 3 feet and had the place of honor in the entire booth.

Exuberantly colored, it reminded me (though I can’t say why) of Chagall. I also can’t say why, but I actually preferred the other Hofmann, though at 35 x 30 inches, it was slightly smaller. With its simple, dynamic forms and nice balance in brush between smeary and structural, it was called “Balance in Black, Blue and White” (1947).


This art fair, though brought to us by the same people who created the now-legendary art fair at Maastricht in The Netherlands, is in only its second year of presentation in New York.

I would never have known about it without another article in The New York Times for May 4 by Martha Schwendener, and although once again the specific examples of art that she chose to feature and reproduce were nothing I was interested in, her generalities suggested that I might enjoy this show. And indeed I did.

To be sure, it didn't include any of the genuine Old Masters (i.e. Renaissance and baroque painters) that are to be found in the Maastricht version of the fair ("Tefaf" stands for "The European Fine Art Fair").

The organizers of the New York version elected instead to focus on "modern" and even contemporary art, though a handful of the fair's 90 dealers from 13 countries also exhibited small Greek, Roman and Egyptian sculptures, as well as pre-Columbian, Chinese and Egyptian ones.

Also there were several booths devoted to furniture, jewelry and/or the decorative arts, predominantly modern and scrumptious Art Deco from the 1920s.

But in my rush to tell you about what was on view, I am neglecting to fill you in on the very handsome and luxurious installation of the entire fair.

In addition to the Drill Hall, where most of the booths were located, and which is the only place where booths are located when the ADAA's "The Art Show" is on view, TEFAF had rows of specially handsome, intimate though larger spaces at the front of the Armory and on its second floor (where I'd never been before).

On top of that, there was one restaurant, one coffee bar, three bars serving various kinds of wine and a champagne-and-oyster bar on the second floor where you could also get wine and smoked salmon.

And -- unlike the Armory Show -- throughout out the entire fair, there were also plenty of seats.

Typical of the luxurious booth spaces on the second floor was the one for Paul Kasmin, with charcoal black walls, an elegant chandelier, and spotlights that made "Coral" (1979), by Helen Frankenthaler, glow like a true Old Master in its place of honor, on the central partition facing the entrance.

(Surrounding "Coral" was other art from the gallery, including work by Lee Krasner, Motherwell, Milton Avery, Walton Ford & François-Xavier Lalanne. )

Not far away was the booth of London's Waddington Custot, successor-gallery to the Waddington. Though as luxuriously-furnished, its repertoire was mostly more popular art, including fluorescent tubing by Dan Flavin and crushed autobodies by John Chamberlain.

Still, there was also the very nice "Hoist" (1970), a shaped canvas by Kenneth Noland, whose crisp medium-blue center and brightly-colored stripes along the sides once again demonstrated this master's wonderful sense of color.

In the main Drill Hall area, I spotted a fine, very abstract Miró at Helly Nahmad of New York, and Soutine, Childe Hassam, Thomas Hart Benton & Arthur B. Davies at Bernard Goldberg Fine Art, also of New York.

In fact, I saw lots of Miró, an artist I can rarely get too much of; his work was especially on view at Simon Lee, of London, Hong Kong and New York. Di Donna, of New York, had a lively surrealist show, where Miró was joined by Magritte, Ernst & Picasso (represented by an interesting animal mask).

Other artists who were very visible, though not special favorites of mine, were Lucio Fontana (the Italian maker of those slashed canvases), Gunther Uecker (a German minimalist/kinetic artist left over from the '60s), and Alexander Calder.

Applicat-Prazan of Paris had a fine untitled Jean-Paul Riopelle from 1949 - dark but likeable and remarkably like a poured Pollock. Tornabuoni Arte of Florence, Paris and London had a lovely, if late Matisse-like abstract by Piero Dorazio, "Doric III°" (1971).

It was also nice to see the booth of Berggruen of San Francisco (I'd seen his booths in earlier years in the modern section of the Armory Show). His star offering here was a small, brightly-colored Jackson Pollock, "Sun-Scape"(1946).

And you didn't have to worry that it might be a fake -- as Martha Schwendener emphasized, Tefaf experts examine very carefully everything to go on view, just to be sure it's all genuine.

This Pollock was semi-abstract, with little rows of what were probably meant to be dancing figures -- but which somehow gave me the feeling of running birds.

Finally, at the booth of Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art of New York, I saw a large and majestic -- though somehow still characteristically whimsical -- Gottlieb "burst" entitled "Pink and Blue" (1971).

As the name suggests, it had a pink field, a blue "sun" above, and a brown "burst" below. The year before it was painted, at the age of 67, Gottlieb had suffered a major stroke, which paralyzed everything but his right arm and hand. Still, he'd continued to paint. Exciting!

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