On Armory’s Modern Pier, a Quiet, Comfortable Start

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Business begins slowly in the Armory Show’s Modern section, on Pier 92 along the Hudson River. Most collectors spend their first few hours over in the glitzier, airier Contemporary booths, on Pier 94, and so, as I walked through 92 early this afternoon, shortly after the opening, I had the rare pleasure of often being the only person in a booth. For a moment, art fairs seemed like a pretty good invention.

The Modern section sometimes gets brushed off as staid and conservative, and it is those things, but it is also a reliable place to find surprises—old works that have not popped up in public view for years, and may never again. There are minor works by major artists, major works by minor artists and even the occasional masterpiece.

This is a difficult claim to prove, but the quality of the art feels a touch better than last year—more name-brand work, less schlock—though it may just be that the smell of chocolate-chip cookies wafting from the Breads Bakery shop has put me in a positive mood. In any sense, to the booths.

“This is Michael Rosenfeld Gallery,” an older, Upper East Side type whispered to her friend as she rounded the corner into just that booth. “He shows only the most beautiful things.”

Hard to argue with that. Mr. Rosenfeld has, as usual, stocked his booth well, with work by still-underrepresented postwar abstractionists like Norman Lewis and Alma Thomas, a luxurious Fairfield Porter flower painting and a gritty, gruff 1960 ceramic sculpture by the veteran John Mason, who appears in this year’s Whitney Biennial.

Bologna’s Galleria d’Arte Maggiore G.A.M. has their customary shipment of Morandi still lifes, paintings, prints and drawings stretching from 1928 to 1963, not a bad annual tradition in a city that offers too few chances to visit with him. That work from 1963, one year before his death, is a heartbreaker—a drawing in pencil, just a few lines outlining the bottles and boxes the Italian spent a lifetime portraying.

Other highlights? Allan Stone has devoted its booth to paintings by Wayne Thiebaud, whom they represented for decades. There’s not much in the way of his trademark pastries, but there’s a fine standing portrait of a lady, and half a salmon that looks perfectly delicious. Milan’s Repetto gallery has five Pistoletto mirrors, the original art-selfie work. Fleisher/Ollman has a bunch of tiny sculptures by the unknown Philadelphia Wireman (they were discovered in the trash in that city), safely in the four digits (a few had already sold) and some tiny paintings on paper by Sol LeWitt.

Modernist painter Marsden Hartley is everywhere, with gorgeous flowers against a mint at DC Moore; with a late, spare starfish at Driscoll Babcock; and with a meaty, hunky lifeguard at Hirschl & Adler. (Eugene Von Bruenchenhein is also out in force, with his effervescent abstract paintings and his loving, sensual portraits of his wife. Those who want more can head downtown to the Maccarone gallery, which just opened a show with him.)

By midday, things were picking up a bit, but you could still find Frank Maresca, of Ricco/Maresca Gallery, relaxing in his booth, waiting for collectors, as he has done at every Armory Show since its founding. At its center he has a tall, elegant drawing by the self-taught Martín Ramírez, of long, towering buildings and a chugging locomotive. “It might be my favorite Martín Ramírez,” Mr. Maresca ventured. “It’s both confining and escapist.” The same could probably be said for going to art fairs.

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