‘If You Don’t Do This Fair, You’re Stupid’: With Sales and High Spirits, the Armory Show Gets Off to a Rollicking Start

Sean Kelly's bustling booth, with a new painting by Kehinde Wiley. (Photo by Andrew Russeth)

The greatest threat to the Armory Show was a no-show on its opening day. No, we’re not talking about the looming Frieze Art Fair, which launches its first New York edition in May—Frieze was present in corporeal form, in the person of co-director Amanda Sharp, who was spotted amongst the Armory’s booths and in virtual form, in the press release that went out this morning, just as the Armory was opening its doors, announcing Frieze’s New York’s architectural plans.

No, the greatest threat to the Armory, and the one that didn’t turn up, was snow. Every year that the Armory has coincided with snowfall, the moaning and groaning about the far west side location of the piers—that terrifying, frigid taxi line!—has reached a fever pitch. But today the fair’s organizers must have been thanking the weather gods. It was unseasonably warm; visitors had shed their coats and were in ebullient moods. The river outside glistened in the sunlight, beams of which poured through the windows in Pier 92’s lobby area.

And people showed up. There were collectors, like Don Rubell from Miami, Whitney supporter Melva Bucksbaum and her husband Raymond Learsy, David Mugrabi of the Warhol collecting and dealing Mugrabi family, Eli Broad, Susan and Michael Hort.

Powerhouse art advisors, too, were out in force, including Kim Heirston Evans, Todd Levin, director of the Levin Art Group, and Stefano Basilico; museum honchos like the New Museum’s Lisa Phillips; and curators like Neville Wakefield, Massimiliano Gioni and Gary Carrion-Murayari. By mid-afternoon, the aisles on Pier 94, where The Observer spent most of the day, were packed, impeding easy progress; it was tough to move with all the air kissing and “It’s so nice to see you!”

Air kissing is one thing, and fairs are great meeting places, but they don’t do much for the bottom line. However, sales do, and there were plenty today. At Milan and London gallery Massimo de Carlo, a large piece by Nate Lowman, a letter from MoMA’s membership department recreated in black paint on clear plastic mounted on canvas, sold for a cool $75,000. (Perhaps its new owner is headed over to the benefit afterparty at MoMA, to hear Neon Indian play.)

Los Angeles gallery Cherry & Martin parted with a piece by Amanda Ross-Ho, among other things. Drawings and paintings by Nicole Eisenman, whose work appears in the Whitney Biennial, proved especially popular. New York dealer Leo Koenig sold a handful of drawings at $5,000-$11,000 apiece. L.A. gallery Suzanne Vielmetter had a red dot next to a $35,000 Eisenman painting on the front of her booth. Mr. Koenig said that Ms. Eisenman is taking a year off painting to focus on monoprints, so it could be that collectors want to scoop them up while they can.

Over at Marlborough Gallery, which is doing both Pier 94, the contemporary wing, and Pier 92, for modern art, works by Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe have proved popular so far, with two crystal-like sculptures—they are made from quartz crystal and cast plastic in the shape of cacti—selling for $15,000 each.

New York dealer Sean Kelly said he always does well at the Armory, and this year has so far been no exception. Among other things, he parted with a huge new Kehinde Wiley painting–Mr. Wiley’s show opened yesterday at the Jewish Museum–for $135,000. “It’s been phenomenal,” said Mr. Kelly. “We always do fantastically well here.” Then he cut to the chase. “Listen, if you don’t do this fair, you’re stupid. Frieze won’t cut down on the business you do here.” He just signed artist Terence Koh to his roster, and only lamented that he didn’t yet have any artworks by the artist for the booth. We mentioned we’d just run into Mr. Koh at the fair. “Well,” Mr. Kelly boomed. “We did have him in the booth!”

A few works with seven-figure price tags were sprinkled throughout the fair. New York’s Ronald Feldman Fine Arts was offering a series of 58 transparencies by Leon Golub for an even $1 million. Not all of them were hanging in the booth—it’d be a tight squeeze, despite its spacious dimensions—but jpegs of the remaining pieces of the remaining pieces were at the ready. Copenhagen’s Galleri Bo Bjerggaard had a sumptuous 2002 Polke resin painting available for $1.9 million—no buyer yet, but plenty of inquiries.

Over at Eleven Rivington, the Lower East Side sister of the august Greenberg Van Doren gallery, director Augusto Arbizo, sold two small linen works by Jacob Kassay, priced at $3,500 and $10,000, a paint on plywood painting by Michael DeLucia for $18,000 and three TM Davy diptychs for $2,500 each. Mr. Davy’s work is included in Sarah Michelson’s performance setup at the current Whitney Biennial, on the museum’s fourth floor.

Longtime Armory show exhibitor Rhona Hoffman, whose gallery is in Chicago, also praised the fair. “[Founding director] Paul [Morris] worked hard this year and pulled it off,” she said. “We’ve sold pieces today, and people are coming back to follow up on holds,” she said, pointing a 1978 Robert Overby piece that was on hold for $100,000. A Jacob Hashimoto piece, she said, “sold, and will go to Bogota.” One measure of success at a fair is that dealers are so busy negotiating sales and reserves that they forget to eat. At 6 p.m., Ms. Hoffman was just sitting down to lunch.

So was New York gallerist Jack Shainman. Between bites of a sandwich, he lauded the Armory’s “great energy.” Nearby, in his booth, was a Nick Cave sculpture, one of an ongoing series featuring figures of jockeys in peeling blackface, priced at $95,000. It already had two reserves.

Andrew Russeth contributed reporting.

‘If You Don’t Do This Fair, You’re Stupid’: With Sales and High Spirits, the Armory Show Gets Off to a Rollicking Start