With the words “recession” and “economy” hot on the lips of most New Yorkers these days, you would almost think by walking into the 11th
annual Armory Show this past weekend on the Hudson River, that you had been transposed to a different time or place. Hoards of visually hungry patrons shelled out a precious $30 a pop general admission fee to see what the contemporary - and now modern - art world has to offer. Attendance was up 4,000 people from last year’s 10th
anniversary, so crowded in fact that one had to meander through the giant maze of a space consciously avoiding other people’s boot clad toes, even with this year’s addition of the giant Pier 92. This second Pier, called “Armory Modern,” was created to showcase historically significant contemporary and Modern art, including both living and deceased artists, from international dealers. This is quite a change for the Armory Show whose previous main objective was to shed light on contemporary living artists. Whether you perceive this addition as positive or negative, it undoubtedly sheds an alternative perspective on the contemporary exhibit and sets up sort of a measure of standard. Young artists showcased in the Armory contemporary can look to the Armory Modern and ask themselves if their work has what it takes to one day be part of the timeless. Or if you look at it through a more practical (read: fiscal) lens and see the addition of the Armory Modern as the most telling sign of the trying times. Perhaps the Armory now has to appeal more to a more conservative, older-money crowd whose seemingly indestructible cash flow will still, well, flow into the more classic Modern arts. Typical buyers of the edgier, more contemporary works in years past were Wall Street types, whose bonuses have dried up and to whom the frivolous spending of the past is all but a distant memory. Regardless of the motive, Armory Modern was made a visceral reality this past weekend in Pier 92, housing modern greats such as Miro, Arbus (with two of her most famous photos the Jewish giant and the Identical twins on display) and Basquiat to name a few. Quite an intimidating line-up to parallel the fresher contemporary artists, many of whom were showing at the Armory for the first time. “Armory Modern” is not entirely all-star exclusive however, and graciously included lesser but still noteworthy standbys such as sculptor Elias Crespin and photographer Amy Stein.
Pier 94 encompassed 177 contemporary galleries this year from over 20 countries, putting the number of galleries up by 17 from last year. This number however is deceiving. Just in the city of New York, many galleries are downsizing if not disappearing completely, and some that participated in the fair last year were nowhere to be found this March. It’s not just New York that‘s faltering either. Even national and international galleries in the fair last year that are still standing opted out this year due to fiscal constraints. The paradox continues however, when you remember the record attendance and the fact that despite nearly catastrophic economic times, sales were still made.
Within just two hours of the fair’s opening this year, Italian artist Paola Piri sold multiple editions of her neon signs that read, “Stop the complaint, we just bought it,” for a whopping $32,000 each. If we take this into historical perspective, this sale oddly channels Tracy Emin’s love obsessed neons that were some of the first pieces to sell out at last year’s Armory, at the same jaw-dropping prices. This piece was not the only one that seemed repeated or somehow replicated from last year’s successes, predictably solidifying their own. Safe bets abounded, not surprisingly, and there was an obvious prevalence of smaller pieces in general. Painting was back in a huge way this year, a glaring contrast to installation heavy exhibits of the past. So it seems that everyone is playing with the, here’s that word again, “economy” to yield favourable results, some in more obvious ways than others. Milan based gallery Massimo De Carlo showcased a piece that epitomizes the trend of using the recession as a theme. A headstone by duo Elmgreen and Dragset, sat dramatically on the floor of Pier 94, glaring up at you with the playful if not subtle inscription, “Everyone is Broke.” Ironically, this piece was priced at $37,000. Still think it’s funny?
Another trend this year was galleries devoting their stands to single artist presentations. One of the more quirky examples is made by artist Christine Hill, represented by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. Hill set up what she calls The Volksboutique Armory Apothecary, wherein she turns herself into an herbal pharmacist, prescribing remedies to visitors for their various ailments; for a small fee of course. Clever of Hill to capitalize on the ailing New York public, primed by their current environment to invest in anything that promises a cure.
So while some people are going for broke, quite literally, and playing around the recession by creating safe pieces that are most likely to sell, other people are using the times as an excuse for artistic freedom. As contemporary art lovers, this is of course what we hope would happen. Some rare pieces in the show were daring, large and completely impractical, which leads the audience to believe that the artist simply made what he or she wanted, without minding the market. One such series of pieces was created by artist El Anatsui. The artist created a series of intricate and textured wall hangings from mixed materials, but most notably bottle caps and various other quotidian objects. These glimmering, gold-hued sculptures were difficult to ignore and even more difficult not to touch, as the artist had tactfully woven undulating texture into the compilation of hard, small objects. American artist Tony Matelli exercises the same artistic liberty by creating the rather repulsive sculpture called Meat Head, which is in fact, just that; a sculpture of a Mr. Potato type head made entirely of meat. Now, Mr. Matelli must have been feeling particularly free, since even if someone wanted to purchase his piece, it would probably be prohibited by the USDA.
I suppose the Armory Show prognosticated the rapacious appetite for art these days and so in addition to the standby show, they have bestowed upon New York, the Armory Arts Week. Armory Arts week features the Volta exhibit in Chelsea, which, in keeping with the rather international theme of the Armory Show, features regions of the art world that are relatively underexposed, such as the Middle East, Eastern Europe and so forth. In addition to Volta, Armory Arts week includes various satellite fairs scattered about the city, such as a film and music art show Scope New York in Lincoln Center and Fountain New York on Pier 66.