Art Fairs Give Ground to Auction Houses

109747846 Art Fairs Give Ground to Auction HousesWe were at the cafe at the Park Avenue Armory. The space in front of us looked like a ballet choreographed for mobile phones, with the occasional intrusion of an iPad. The scenery at the ADAA art fair last weekend was modernism, postmodernism and just-out-of-the-shell art, with a few pieces from earlier times. Call it The Secondary Market Waltz and let’s go to contract.

The hang at the stand of David Tunick, a Manhattan dealer in drawings and prints, positioned a drawing by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Sir Lancelot in Queen Guinevere’s Chamber, between a Jasper Johns and a drawing by the 18th-century German landscapist Jacob Philippe Hackert. “A man brought in the Rossetti in a plastic shopping bag,” Mr. Tunick noted.

One doubts that plastic shopping bags figured in many deals, at that Armory or at the actual “Armory Show,” across town on piers 93 and 94. Many New Yorkers may not have known these twin art bazaars were going on at all–which is very unlike Art Basel Miami Beach, during which the whole Southern city is turned over to an art party, as the media tells us–but they and a dozen other satellite fairs with tempting names such as Fountain, Pool and Red Dot were scattered around the town.

This year, the gargantuan main fair, always a buzzy zoo, saw changes. The time of poorly concealed long faces has gone, but the time of collectors’ elbowing each other out of the way has not returned. The mood might be described as equable. It seemed more than cosmetic that the V.I.P. lounge had been sedately renamed the friendlier-sounding Armory Circle, even if it was hung with what looked suggestively like netting, perhaps to keep collectors from escaping. Champagne there, unlike some other years, was free to V.I.P. cardholders, perhaps for the same reason.

Dealer and curator Francis Naumann was at his Armory stand deep in discussion with the veteran Conceptualist Joseph Kosuth over In Advance of a Broken Arm, a Marcel Duchamp in Mr. Kosuth’s own collection. Somehow, their conversation segued to a deceased Long Island collector whose house was sold with a major Julian Schnabel plate painting perhaps still hidden behind a wall. 

Now, you don’t hear that kind of nugget at an auction.

Absences were as notable as appearances. Many hefty New York galleries were no-shows at the Armory, among them Pace, Marian Goodman, Michael Werner, David Zwirner and Gagosian (each choosing to show elsewhere or at no fair at all), and that meant that many artists who have seemed ubiquitous features of the Global Artscape–Takashi Murakami, Anselm Reyle, et al.–were conspicuous by their near total absence. I saw no striking Warhols and no Jeff Koons, for instance. Indeed, apart from outbreaks of Mel Ramos here and there, Pop and post-Pop, once the fairs’ emblems, were a diminished presence.

So did Armory 2011 signal that the model of the art fair as a system for delivering high-end merchandise to the extravagantly well-heeled is passé? Hardly. The change is a reflection of the fact that the auction houses (and their private sales arms) are increasingly wresting four-star goods away from the dealers. “And people don’t want their art to be overexposed. Burned,” said the Rhinebeck dealer, Stephen Mazoh. “There’s a ceiling to the number of millions somebody will spend at an art fair. It’s to do with discretion. At an art fair, the prices are known.”

So, art dealers everywhere were showing strong work by un-mega artists, like Cesar at uptown’s Allan Stone; Erro at the Vienna gallery Hilger Modern; John Walker at Knoedler of East 70th Street; and Max Paintner at another Vienna gallery, George Kargi.

The effects on the Armory Show were curiously refreshing. “I used to be the manager of this fair,” says Timothy Smith, who now manages art careers and was there with one of his artists, Lisa Ruyter. “There’s a different buzz. It’s not the same dealers with the same artworks. It’s the unexpected.”

So, to the other fairs. It was the second year for the non-fair fair, the Independent, a cartel of jaggedly cutting-edge galleries ranging from Hotel and Maureen Paley (from London) and Spruth Magers (Berlin, London) to White Columns, Gavin Brown Enterprise and Elisabeth Dee (Manhattan). Here, in the Independent’s headquarters of the old Dia Foundation building in Chelsea, is where you expect to glimpse the mega-galleries of the future. The Pulse fair, at the Metropolitan Pavilion, was strong. Scope, at a warehouse on the West Side highway, was very much in-your-face lowbrow and neo-Pop, and welcomed visitors at the entrance with artist Typoe’s vivid sculpture of three skulls vomiting plastic trash. I scribbled down as characteristics the names of Dutch artist Misty Groenendijk, a trio of artists showing at Atlanta’s Besharat Gallery and the somewhat Mark Ryden-esque Marion Peck at Rivington’s Sloan Fine Art. (There and elsewhere, New York artists had no monopoly on creativity.) And then I stopped. It’s the future … of something.

Some of the interesting art seemed to be more about obsessiveness than product at the Volta Art Fair: for instance, four–five? I lost count–featured artists doing tricky stuff with books. Ryan Brown at the Y Gallery had meticulously fabricated 26 volumes–an art Modern Masters, including a Banksy volume–plus fake orange bookstore stickers from the Strand. At this fair, in the shadow of the Empire State Building, I liked Winnie Truong’s scarily hairy portrait drawings in colored crayon at the Toronto gallery Katharine Mulherin; also Richard Colman’s complex drawings at the Copenhagen gallery VI. And I was taken with the way that Evol had painted parts of buildings, such as windows and balconies, onto beaten-up cardboard crates at Berlin ‘s Wilde Gallery.

Well, three or four obsessive presentations can be great and a dozen acceptable. But when there were fetishistic drawings, paintings, assemblages and electronica just about every place you looked … well, Volta ‘s layout, which was as pent-up as a prison or a mental ward, began to seem all too appropriate for the week.

            editorial@observer.com