In Dueling Art Fairs, Downtown Exhibition Wins

The 11th annual installment of The Art Show got under way on Feb. 17 with the powerful combination of blue-chip art and discerning moguls that has made this one of the annual events in the art world’s calendar. While pianist Camilla Cloney played Rodgers and Hart’s “You Took Advantage of Me” near the entrance of the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue and 67th Street, Henry Kravis, Alfred Taubman, Leonard Lauder, Harry Macklowe and other opening-night patrons strolled through the hall looking for something to take home. Tom Brokaw was seen admiring a Picasso charcoal drawing.

There were more sales than last year, dealers said, and the spirit was upbeat. But those who looked closely at the lineup for the show this year could detect that organizers were looking over their shoulders at the rival Armory Show 1999 , a show of cutting-edge contemporary art which opened the following night, Feb. 18, in the vaulted 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue at 26th Street.

Each year, the organizers of The Art Show assign dealers their booths, and this year the booths that receive the most exposure were given to three contemporary art dealers who were, for the most part, showing the kind of work that could have been seen at Armory Show 1999 . (Most of the Art Show dealers bring the sort of midcentury, safe high-priced art that would bore people downtown.)

Jason McCoy filled his booth to the brim with what he referred to as “a Catholic twist on my spin,” including self portraits by Constantin Brancusi. Curt Marcus had a large, haunting manipulated photograph by one of his leading artists, Barbara Ess. Michael Werner filled his booth with the work of Jörg Immendorff, a German artist who paints in a Surrealistic style that seems to have inspired David Salle.

When interviewed, all of the dealers said that they were unaware that they had been assigned their booths because of the type of work they exhibit. Yet O. Kelley Anderson, the director of The Art Show , conceded that was the case. “For as long as we have existed, the contemporary art dealers have been saying that there isn’t enough contemporary representation and this was our way of demonstrating that, hey, it is not as bad as you think,” Mr. Anderson told The Observer . “If you want to tie it into the downtown show, you can.”

The downtown show is an outgrowth of the funky Gramercy International Art Fair, which has been held in tattered rooms in the Gramercy ParkHotel on Lexington Avenue at 21st Street. By moving the show to another armory and holding it at the same time as The Art Show , the organizers immediately invited comparisons. In many ways, the downtown show seemed to be a clone of the uptown show, yet another case of the blurring of distinctions between downtown and uptown art.

Mr. Anderson pointed out that The Art Show is open only to members of the Art Dealers Association of America, an organization of established dealers who are invited to join and whose members tend to deal in the staples of big-time art collecting. By comparison, the 75 dealers who showed in Armory Show 1999 did not have to be members of an organization. They only had to pass muster of a committee of hip downtown dealers consisting of Matthew Marks, Pat Hearn, Paul Morris and Colin DeLand, founders of the Gramercy International Art Fair.

The opening night of the uptown show was a $150- to $500-a-ticket benefit for the Henry Street Settlement. The opening night of the downtown show was a $150 ticket benefit for the Dia Center for the Arts.

But as could be expected, the downtown show was considerably more colorful than the uptown show. Mr. Marks positioned himself in the lead booth to Armory Show 1999 with a showing of exquisite artworks that would have been right at home at The Art Show .

Dressed all in black with a pair of dark round glasses like the late Swifty Lazar wore, Mr. Marks talked to Janie C. Lee, adjunct curator of drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art, about Untitled Red & Green Drawing 1 , a 1998 drawing by Brice Marden. Knight Landesman, executive publisher of Artforum and Rocco Landesman’s younger brother, stepped into the booth wearing a sky blue suit. He admired Brown White Black , a classic Ellsworth Kelly painting that stretched across one wall of Mr. Marks’ booth–first stop for most people entering the armory.

“They are showing their high cards,” Mr. Landesman noted, pointing to the Kelly painting. “At the Gramercy, they showed their low cards.” The Gramercy was notable for the type of conceptual art that no one seemed to buy but which preoccupied many contemporary art dealers in the 1990′s.

Sure, Armory Show 1999 still contained the type of art that seems to have been created more for shock value than for sales value. Holly Solomon, who is one of the two dealers to exhibit in both fairs, covered her booth in red flocked wallpaper with pictures of smirking adolescent boys. Ms. Solomon explained that the wallpaper was from a series called The Bully Wallpaper , by Virgil Marti, a Philadelphia artist.

Richard Feigen, an established Upper East Side dealer who has opened Feigen Contemporary in Chelsea, was offering 10-kiloton nuclear bombs–minus the plutonium–by Brooklyn artist Gregory Green. But you had to look for that type of art.

Armory Show 1999 also had its share of moguls. Leonard Riggio, chief executive of Barnes & Noble Inc., was seen talking to Michael Govan, the director of the Dia Center. “This has real energy to it,” said Kent Logan, a collector from San Francisco who underwrote Vanessa Beecroft’s show of nude and seminude models at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum last year. “I was at the uptown armory and it was like you almost fall asleep walking through the aisles. Here there is some energy. I’ve walked for two hours and I’ve only made it through two aisles.”

Mr. Logan admired a sculpture of a head by Louise Bourgeois with Howard Read in the Cheim & Read booth. Like Mr. Marks, Mr. Read and his partner, John Cheim, brought the cream of their gallery’s program to the show.

Paul Kasmin, whose eponymous gallery is in SoHo, took the same strategy. On opening night, he reported that he had sold several artworks including a painting by Walton Ford, a young artist who works with ornithological subjects in collage-inspired paintings. This remark prompted Madison Cox, a landscape designer, to tell a story about the Ford painting Mr. Kasmin sold to him. He pointed out that his Ford painting has been locked up in a traveling museum exhibition. “I’ve only been able to enjoy the painting for two months this summer,” Mr. Cox said. When it was pointed out that those are the disadvantages of buying art by a successful artist, Mr. Cox quipped: “No. Those are the disadvantages of doing business with Kasmin.” Both men laughed.