Independent, the 44-gallery art fair that opened for a VIP preview at noon today and that calls itself a “temporary exhibition forum” is located just 30 blocks south down the West Side Highway from the Armory Show’s Piers 92 and 94, but feels like a different world altogether. Started three years ago by art dealers Elizabeth Dee and Darren Flook at the former Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea, it is smaller and more welcoming than most art fairs happening in New York this week. There are, for instance, windows that let actual light into the exhibition space, not to mention an accessible roof, which is about as rare at one of these things as free alcohol. Independent lived up to its tagline, feeling more like a large, convivial group show than a standard trade show.
Over where the Lower East Side gallery 47 Canal had set up in a corner on the fourth floor, The Observer was staring into a work by Anicka Yi, who had a solo show at the gallery in September. On the floor was a bird cage with a pair of scissors sticking through the bars, delicately balancing a Samoa Girl Scout cookie. The artist had covered the back of the enclave (there aren’t the typical cubicle-like booths here) in black and spray painted strange shapes all over it.
“Do you know what those symbols are?” Margaret Lee, the gallery’s co-proprietor asked us. “It’s the Girl Scouts logo. Apparently the Girl Scouts are calling 2012 the year of the girl.”
“Do you think that’s true?” The Observer asked.
“It should be! This is our first time doing this. We didn’t want it to look like an inventory. We treated this like an exhibition—”
She was cut off by Elizabeth Dee, who wanted to introduce her to collector Barbara Morris. This would end up being a kind of theme for the day. The Observer arrived early, believing things would be slow enough to get some reporting done; a lot of interviews were interrupted by collectors. It was good for the dealers, anyway!
“It’s been really fast and furious,” Ms. Dee told us in the space where her own gallery was set up. She had already sold a Mark Barrow painting—priced at $15,000—to an institution (she wouldn’t say which one), as well as works by Adrian Piper and Renaud Regnery. We asked her what was different about Independent this year.
“It was a much more in-depth investigation into the content, and also the architecture. Christian Wassmann is someone who—”
“Would you mind talking to this woman about Renaud?” an employee said.
“Excuse me,” she said and was off.
Luckily, Jack Hanley, who was right nearby had the scoop on Mr. Wassmann’s design.
“He did the walls very specifically,” Mr. Hanley said. “Twenty-nine degrees off due north. He said because New York was built that way. Who knows if it’s even true? But they look like they belong here.”
Mr. Hanley was showing a large sculpture made of the beat-up canvas of a ship’s hull by Marie Lorenz, who also had a video work on display, as well as new printed work on paper by Tauba Auerbach.
“Unless I had a really big booth,” he said, gesturing at the ship sculpture, “this would be really hard. Everyone working here is kind of an artist. Sort of like Frieze. With the video,” he pointed to Ms. Lorenz’s video over on the far wall, “we decided to put it on these pedestals, but they were just filthy. And this guy who was working said, ‘You know, I’ll paint it for you. It will just take a second.’ And he just rolled it out white. He also asked me if he could show me his work. That seemed like a fair trade off.”
Mr. Hanley’s mention of Frieze was hardly incidental. Over half of the galleries participating in Independent will be doing that London fair’s first New York edition, in May.
“It’s about getting a lot of work into a lot of peoples’ homes and loving art,” said Gavin Brown, who prefaced our conversation by saying, “We’ll talk until we get interrupted,” and proceeded to face out toward where the people were gathered, just in case. He was showing work by Spencer Sweeney and Rob Pruitt. He said he wanted to bring “something really accessible.”
“I like selling,” he added, and ran off to do just that. Mr. Pruitt had installed rows of silver chairs and stools that looked great in the natural light. Bridget Donahue, a director at Gavin Brown, was asking people nicely if they would please not sit on the art.
Meanwhile, the London dealer Stuart Shave had taken over a large corner of the fourth floor with the work of Oscar Murillo; he sold out in the first few minutes of the fair. The artist’s work, expressionist canvases that ranged from looking like their markings were accidental to being a little more heavy handed (one had the word “YOGA” underlined and scratched across it in big block letters), had caught the eye of James Franco, who stared intently. Was he there collecting?
“Those were the old days,” he told us with a laugh. “Now I’m just a student.”
We almost walked right past L.A.’s China Art Objects because they’d changed their name to International Art Objects. They’d hung a Sam Falls fade (priced at $5,000) next to a fire extinguisher by the stairwell.
“For one thing, we moved out of Chinatown,” proprietor Steve Hanson said of the new name, which he is debuting at Independent. (He hasn’t even changed his business cards yet.) “And nowadays, there’s just so many Chinese artists that every other question—especially at art fairs—was, are these all Chinese artists? If people know us, they’ll recognize it as us. I think. I hope. If people don’t know us, they won’t think we show only artists from China.”
Nearby, New York’s Untitled had almost sold out of drawings on carbon paper by Joshua Neustein, who used to show with Mary Boone (until he was dropped by her in 1981). The gallery signed up for Independent at the last minute. Joel Mesler, Untitled’s co-proprietor, gave us some insight about why dealers wanted to participate, aside from just selling things quickly.
“Literally, all my friends are on this floor,” he said. He later provided us with a photograph of a few of them. “It’s all people I like to hang out with. So when I get scared, I go talk to them.”
Later, during a mid-afternoon lull, we caught up with Ms. Dee again.
“We started this in a very difficult time in the art world,” she said. “It’s evolved.”