Back in the New York Groove: The Author Comes Home, and Finds the Art World Changed

The “For Sale” sign outside the Max Lang Gallery on 10th Avenue is as blunt as a sock on the

The “For Sale” sign outside the Max Lang Gallery on 10th Avenue is as blunt as a sock on the jaw. The Chelsea Museum’s building is bankrupt, gallery rents are lower, business is still sluggish and the anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been a drift from the galleries to the auction houses, despite the sometimes higher costs of doing business there.

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“Look at the damage done by Larry Salander and Tom Doyle,” said the private art dealer and agent Paul Quatrochi as we strolled the galleries. Mr. Salander is the dealer convicted of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fraud, and Tom Doyle is the dealer behind the disappeared (albeit briefly) Corot. “Those guys might as well be wearing sandwich boards advertising the auction houses,” Mr. Quatrochi added. Collectors may be thinking: “At least they won’t lose your consignment in the bushes.”

That said, I found Art-World circuitry, in these past few days since my return from some months in London, as busy as it ever was, and this despite the fact that there are few particularly buzzed-about shows. At Gagosian at 980 Madison, Gregory Crewdson’s unpeopled black-and-white photographs of the deserted Cinecittà back lot in Rome–once a serious rival to Hollywood in the filmmaking business–are a haunting inversion of the vivid fictions that made his name. I didn’t much care for Dan Colen’s over-large canvases at another Gagosian outpost, on West 24th, but found the savagery with which the show has been greeted sometimes oddly personal. There seems to be a tremendous backlash–as if everyone in the art world had suddenly woke up and were ashamed of their boom-era behavior–against any type of aggressively marketed art.

Two shows I did find indicative of new directions, both, perhaps not coincidentally, at relatively new galleries. Israeli-born artist Shay Kun is up to something suggestive in his paintings at Benrimon Contemporary, on 24th Street and 10th Avenue. Elements that he incorporates into his brilliantly colored, sometimes gaudy canvases including brittle, biscuit-tin landscapes of the sort mass-produced in factories in Taiwan. The artist puts them to weirdly effective use here, inserting modern elements–a stalled car, a hoodie-wearing teen, a hot-air balloon–into the 19th-century-style views. The show, “Exfoliations,” is further proof, like Mark Ryden’s recent show at Paul Kasmin, that the huge world of kitsch has become fair game for fine art.

Another breath of fresh air was Venice Case Study, an installation of work by Marjetica Potrc at a gallery that I thought was new to me, Meulensteen at 511 West 22nd Street. Then I saw that the gallery wasn’t new to me. It’s the old Max Protetch space (Max has recently retired), but minus the pillars, and differently lit. “We’ve tweaked it a bit,” said Edwin Meulensteen. I’ll say. But the Protetch program so far largely remains. “She has one foot in the architecture world and one foot in fine art,” Mr. Meulensteen said of Ms. Potrc, She also does word pieces that put her in the worlds of literature, urban studies and much else. This is fine art as a big tent.

But neither of these shows were responsible for the electricity I could feel just wandering around Chelsea. This was transmitted not just by the galleries, and even not primarily by the galleries, but by an explosion of the phenomena of stickering and street art all over the neighborhood. There is a focal point near Pastis, and another outside Comme des Garcons–and there are cryptic or not-so-cryptic drawings and messages everywhere, like “Optimismo Radical” stenciled on the street, and “That Lame Tattoo Is Like Puke On Your Beautiful Ankle” on a kiosk. An oak tree outside Metro Pictures carries an inscription from Josef Beuys, and a banner opposite Gagosian is offering “Sixteen Limited Edition Riverfront Homes” (or is it–it’s a bit difficult to read–“Riverfront Hos”?). It’s by a social critic, not a real estate developer. 

At breakfast at the newish restaurant-bar, Bes, on 22nd Street, there was a breakfast discussion, not of the menu but of the art program. It seems economies go up and down but the penetration of the culture by contemporary art grows ever deeper and, from that, there’s no turning back.

Back in the New York Groove: The Author Comes Home, and Finds the Art World Changed