Back to the Future: The Armory Show 2009

The mega-fair arrives armored with a new Modern wing, moderate expectations, and Kenny Scharf.

poster for

"The Armory Show" Art Fair

at Pier 92
in the Midtown area
This event has ended - (2009-03-05 - 2009-03-08)

In Features Reviews by Laura Meli 2009-03-08 print

Crowds of well-heeled visitors flocked to the Armory Show over the weekend, with shuttle buses herding people back and forth between the Armory and its sister fair, VOLTA, in Midtown. Taxi lines gathered outside the venue as some patiently waited their turn rather than walk a few blocks to the subway. Upon arriving, guests were greeted by 5 large canvases totaling 55 feet of spray painted works that were part of a performance piece by artist Kenny Scharf, whose presence is felt at this fair in a big way.

Kenny Scharf, ''Spungle.'' Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery.

Opening night saw 5,500 VIPs, and while the pace slowed down on Thursday, as reported by several dealers, it had picked up again by Friday. Aisleways were heavily trafficked, and seating areas spread throughout the sprawling fair were full of people taking a break from the art. Everywhere you looked another dealer was on the phone, sending an email, talking to a prospective buyer. There seemed to be a lot of action, if not a lot of selling. While some are doing quite well, such as Paul Kasmin, whose Chelsea-based gallery represents Kenny Scharf, not many can say with any confidence that the fair will ultimately be a financial success. According to Mr. Kasmin, “it goes up and down like a roller coaster. One minute you think you sold something, and the next minute they don’t pay for it. You never know until you have got the money in your hands! There have been sales though, but there are a lot of people changing their minds. In the old days they were desperate to pay as fast as they could so that they knew they had the picture.” Everyone agrees that the fair has been well attended by important curators and collectors, but, as Kasmin says, “the financial thing is extremely irritating and unpleasant.”

However, Kenny Scharf doesn’t seem to let the goings-on of the market affect him too much. He says he is “just happy to do it. I am having so much fun out there. I have nothing to do with the market. That’s what I think art is all about, just not thinking about the market, and just making art. That’s what it is for me, and what it’ll always be.” Kasmin agrees with Scharf, remembering that that was how it used to be. He feels sorry for the young people, he said, who think of art as a money maker, a market thing. One of the positive outcomes of the current climate in the art market, Kasmin says, is the return to the making of art for the sake of making art, instead of making what sells. This is a sentiment heard over and over again as dealers try to find something good to hold on to.

Evan Gruzis, ''Cosmic Wayfarer No. 3,'' 2008, Deitch Projects.

With prime real estate at the front of the fair and a large Ryan McGinness on an exterior wall, it is no surprise that Deitch Projects is getting a lot of attention. Gallery Director Kathy Grayson points out that while everyone may be putting a positive face forward, that doesn’t mean things are as they seem. “People aren’t stupid, they’re not going to say anything bad,” she said. As for her own gallery, “We have had some sales, but still in the 5 figures, nothing yet in the six figures. But it is what we all expected, slow, but it’s good for us to be here, because our gallery doesn’t get a lot of traffic. It’s in SoHo.”

Mizuma Art Gallery from Tokyo and Beijing was perpetually buzzing with action, in large part by the delicately-drawn ink and acrylic Foretoken, by Manabu Ikeda. The Johannesburg Goodman Gallery and the UK based Lisson Gallery also experienced heavy traffic, including a well-attended VIP tour. Dealers were ensconced in conversations with collectors while others studied works and waited their turn. At Lisson, a small group stood outside the booth considering a Julian Opie LCD, while at Goodman, lightboxes by Willem Boshoff caught the eyes of one group of women.

According to Sharmistha Ray, the Director of Bodhi Art, based in Mumbai, the fair has been good so far. They arrived with moderate expectations, particularly as a new exhibitor, and while “Thursday was a slow day, the VIP day matched our expectations and had several important collectors come through, and today (Friday) there has been energy in the air.” The gallery has sold works while at the Armory, but not works in their booth. In a move that Ray says had nothing to do with the economic climate, but that was certainly fiscally sound for a gallery traveling from Mumbai, they chose to exhibit works that were already in New York by four artists that Ray says are working on projects in or near New York, and so it made sense to show them. With strong interest on several pieces in the booth, Ray is hopeful for the remaining days of the fair.

Armory Show 2009, Opening Day. Photo: David Willems.

Another first timer, Andréhn-Schiptjenko, a gallery from Sweden, has not seen any sales yet, but like the others, is pleased with the level of interest. Luno Andrehn notes that the most interest is in established artists like Marilyn Minter as opposed to newer artists, which he contends, he finds somewhat boring. But even with works placed in the $5,000 – $20,000 range, not one had moved by the time of this interview. However, he is very happy to be at the fair, and to be making contacts, and is hoping to see some of that interest turn into sales by Sunday.

After braving the deadly scaffolding stairs that take visitors from Pier 94 to the Modern division at Pier 92, one notices that the mood changes quite palpably. With far less footfall and lower ceilings, you suddenly feel the need to speak a little softer, as if walking into a library by accident. The aisles are noticeably more roomy, and dealers are holding fewer conversations in person and more on their iPhones and computers. However, there were sales being made at this new addition to the Armory Show.

According to Renato Danese, of the Danese gallery in New York, the sales are slower than at Pier 94, but he and his fellow exhibitors believe the addition to be a good one, and he would gladly participate again next year. He had sold one small Richard Serra painting, and had received very strong interest on several other pieces in his booth, so was keeping a hopeful outlook. He acknowledged that there is no point in comparing the situation to the last few years, because things are just too different.

Armory Show 2009, Opening Day. Photo: David Willems.

At Boulakia Gallery, a collector was on his way back to the booth to finalize a buy, and at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art the dealers were too busy on their phones using phrases like “another opportunity” to sit down for a chat. One German dealer who did not want to be identified revealed that he had sold two large works, which placed the gallery in a comfortable zone, but that he hoped to sell two more so that he could finally relax.

Though a few dealers suggested that the concept behind this Modern addition had not been clearly stated, and having seen pieces by Richard Prince and Kenny Scharf alongside work by Marc Chagall, I would agree, most think it is a worthwhile endeavor and one the fair should continue. With better stairs in place next year and a clearer identity, they might even persuade more traffic.

Laura Meli

Laura Meli. With degrees in art history, the visual arts and arts administration, Laura works at ArtTable and is on the board of Underworld Productions Opera Ensemble. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their plants, hates when people block the door on the subway and always wishes she ordered what you ordered. » See other writings

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