Armory But Not Dangerous

If last week’s contemporary art fair, the Armory Show, and its 162 galleries is any sampling of the state of the art world-and the owners of that fair would like you to believe it is-then things are in such great shape that we’re totally screwed.

It’s hard to criticize a trade show for being, well, a trade show. Throughout its seven years as the Armory Show, and in its previous incarnation as the Gramercy International Art Fair, this beast has, at moments, been the largest and most realistic reflection of New York’s-and sometimes even the world’s-contemporary art commerce. Dealers never brought the best of the best-that stuff’s not for public consumption-but they’ve always tried to make themselves look good. That made it buzzy and fun: Once upon a time, the art was surprising, sometimes ugly and sometimes downright nasty-but better yet, the fair displayed enormous egos and riveting internecine political machinations.

But the fun-like most of the paintings-is on hold. Deep pockets have been turned out for the sake of art, and younger, once-suffering gallery owners spent the week whomping on the passing hedge-fund managers like kids around so many pinstriped piñatas to get their share of the candy. And? They were pretty much all smiles (if occasionally serrated ones) and polite thank-yous while they did it. This year’s Armory reflected the happy-sad state of New York’s art-dealing business today: For this brief moment, it’s a successful, characterless bore.

Retinal pleasure divorced from conceptual drive abounded this year. On the Armory’s two piers of art, jutting like giant candy-bar racks out into the Hudson, where once bestiality was all the rage, now but a single sculpture could be found depicting human-animal intercourse. (Well, that’s probably a good thing, artistically.)

Lately, New York has been getting another kind of art stuffed down its craw every time it yawns. Christo and Jean-Claude’s The Gates sent swarms to Central Park-four million of them, 1.5 million from out of town, according to the city-and for what?

Attendance at The Gates was in keeping with a strong liberal (and totally Clintonian) idea that art is good for you. It’s why suburban folks drag themselves to lackluster productions of Shakespeare plays in Middle America, why high-school drama departments exist: Somehow, appreciation is supposed to make us better people, and we’re instilled with a queer and inchoate piety for art.

Many came away unimpressed, and they were right: The Gates was the least intrusive, least aesthetically thrilling and least political of any of their works to date.

Nice art isn’t good for anyone. And as New Yorkers, we’re supposed to be better than that. We’re supposed to like our photographs and our music about screwing and drugs.

In contrast, Armory fair organizers were reportedly even nervous about a massive Ivan Witenstein sculpture installed by the Public Art Fund at the entry to one of the fair’s piers-it depicts Gandalf on a raft with Huck Finn and Jim. (It also was close to being the only piece of political art on view, though its actual politics were unclear.)

Art shouldn’t be good for everyone-in fact, it should be very, very bad for at least some.

There’s a bit of logistics that power the dullness at the Armory, besides space constraints and the whole merch mall thing: Most artists are compelled now to make, in addition to whatever they need to manufacture for upcoming exhibitions, work specifically for sale at fairs-often as many as three a year. (Art Basel takes place in Switzerland in June and again in Miami in December; the new but influential Frieze Art Fair takes place in London in October; and the Armory now holds to its slot in March.) Dealers use these fairs to preview upcoming changes in their artists’ work, but more often they bring the kind of thing that they know they can unload on their second-best (but still dear) collectors.

So, focused on the products of the workshop system, there’s not much drama to latch onto-either as a visitor or as a visiting celebrity.

“Everyone knows they didn’t finalize their V.I.P. schedule until the last minute,” said someone-after a few cocktails-who worked for the Armory Art Fair, at the end of last week’s hard-drinking, flesh-pressing art marathon. “The reason everyone loves Miami is they have such good parties. This was such a ramshackle operation. The opening-night MoMA preview was a total bust. In Miami, they sold out opening night. But here, in the epicenter of the art world? Uh-uh. In Miami, it’s a feeding frenzy.”

“A total bust” might not be fair, although a few dealers partly agreed with that assessment. The Armory’s Thursday-night opening was buzzy enough: Denise Rich was there with a pack of overtanned queens. And alert! Mike Ovitz incoming! Even Isaac Mizrahi found himself shopping.

But really, not much selling happened at the pricey MoMA-benefiting opening party itself, perhaps in part because Wednesday is the new Thursday: The day before the party, while the dealers were still setting up, folks like Michael and Susan Hort, the painting-hungry TV executive Dean Valentine and even fellow dealer Jeannie Greenberg Rohatyn were said to be buying.

Arts consultant Sheri Pasquarella, a former director of the recently closed Gorney Bravin and Lee and a co-founder of the upstart New Art Dealers Alliance, brought clients on Thursday: “They enjoyed themselves, but in the interests of full disclosure, I got in on Wednesday, and I was sort of … not surprised, but slightly frustrated by the fact of how many things were already on reserve on Wednesday at 3 o’clock in the afternoon. So I spent five hours placing secondary reserves which I didn’t get.”

“People who look at red dots and think the work is sold are giving into the fiction,” said Tyler Green, art critic for Bloomberg News. The work on view may or may not be sold or for sale-but it’s quite possibly not for sale to you, and who’s to say that painting’s the same price for you as it is for real-estate king Jerry Speyer or Miami bigwigs Don and Mera Rubell?

It’s only natural that big, gallery-supporting collectors would be steamed if they weren’t offered the work before it’s put up to be slobbered on by the hoi polloi. That kind of surprise is enough to sour a great relationship. So what’s a dealer to do? (Critic Charlie Finch sympathized, in his way, on Artnet.com: “Armory visitors might try something novel instead. They might visit some art galleries!”)

“Before the fair opened,” said Ms. Pasquerella, “I heard talk of a lot of the bigger galleries saying they weren’t doing it again this year. They’d do the ADAA fair”-the annual show by the Art Dealers Association of America, with more big-ticket items, more modern than contemporary-“or not do it at all, because of Basel and Frieze. I’d be curious to know if their opinion has changed.”

There are mundane challenges that the Armory faces: “Miami in December is beautiful. New York in March is fucking disgusting,” said one New York dealer who didn’t make the Armory cut this year.

Worst of all, there was a near-total lack of cat-fighting and drama-apart from niggling bits, like, hey, what was Catherine Opie’s work doing in Barbara Gladstone’s booth? Wasn’t she going to be showing at Mitchell-Innes and Nash? And which dealer recently had a 28-day vacation of sorts and might not be paying appropriate attention to his or her tax filings?

There were little moments that told stories of the year in art. That Christian Haye, owner of The Project, quietly installed only one piece of art in his booth for sale, after his gallery had just been hit with a $1.7 million judgment on behalf of a disgruntled collector-investor, spoke to the legerdemain and secrecy of art dealing.

In fact, the financial milieu of galleries is in keeping with the most libertarian of politics: Art galleries, after all, are only the tiniest of corporations-the very largest of them certainly don’t employ more than 200 people-and as a small industry, they are largely ignored. But the industry has few corners left to cut. Just last summer, swanky dealer Thea Westreich pleaded guilty to failure to pay sales tax on $5 million worth of art. And over the years, the Manhattan D.A.’s office has picked off a number of tax-evading collectors.

Then there’s the Invasion of the Euro. Not content to take up seats in restaurants, ordering everything on the menu because it’s “so cheap,” and buying buildings as if they were studio apartments, Europeans are snapping up art in New York like it’s going out of style. (Come to think of it …. )

It was totally common to hear prices quoted in euros and pounds at the fair. Both Marianne Boesky and Matthew Marks, unwilling (perhaps contractually so) to take a hit on currency fluctuations, have recently posted price lists for overseas artists at their galleries in pounds.

Like the real-estate brokers before them, art dealers must love this bubble while they can: Even Mary Boone is reportedly up to her old tricks, waving big cash under the noses of young artists to induce them to jump ship from li’l galleries. And dealers are encouraged by the Armory’s accompanying Darwinism: With a few dozen gallery booths cut from last year’s fair, many dealers feel like the culling of the herd resulted in a more streamlined, and more profitable, fair. Ho- hum!

All art fairs have a life span: Art Chicago was, until fairly recently, an epicenter of business, but in terms of buzz and quality participation, it’s currently face-down in the shallow end. The Armory Show will-like the rest of us-die someday.

Given the competition from the new monster Basel fair in Miami, without this year’s tidal wave of bubble cash, the Armory might very well have begun its walk down the stony end.

In some regards, some say it already has. “In terms of an art-world industry convention, where collectors, curators, artists and critics gather, the Armory is really a distant second,” said Tyler Green. Holland Cotter, reviewing for The New York Times, noted the “dominance” of “object-fetishism”: The emphasis on merch, even as almost top-drawer as it was, made the show itself less cutting-edge, less exciting than the hot conceptual sprawl of Miami.

The week’s lackluster art-partying wound down on Saturday night with Artforum’s fairly sexy party at Dia-P.S. 1 curatorial consultant Bob Nickas with a posse of at least 20! Curator Thelma Golden in Prada! Horny French dealers looking for tips on the sleaziest gay bars!-and on Sunday, the final nail was hammered into the coffin with the opening of Greater New York at P.S. 1, the second of that institution’s career-making show of young New York–based artists. A row of cash registers jingled merrily all day long as hipsters paid admission to MoMA’s bastard stepchild. Dealers woozy from the Armory’s toxic-building syndrome-“The new carpet, as beautiful as it is, has been giving off horrible fumes all the time,” said one dealer-came out to check out the children, although admittedly, most of them were a known factor in Chelsea circles.

Earlier in the week, a fake press release had circulated for the show, a prank written by parties unknown. “Initially, 30 curatorial staff members from P.S.1 and MoMA reviewed the work of more than 2000 ’emerging’ artists; from promising high school students to seasoned recent graduates of MFA programs, to the artists of persistent dealers,” it mocked.

But that’s missing the point … sort of. All the world’s a fair, baby-and the dealers, the fairs, the museums and the collectors are interconnected in deeply unwholesome and permanent and, most probably, totally vital ways.

Then, late Sunday night, a boat launched from the South Street Seaport carrying the partying artists in the P.S. 1 show. The boat had an open bar; to the consternation of the young artists, it was only stocked with beer, which they drank shivering as they swam circles around Manhattan.

Armory But Not Dangerous