Eli Broad, and No Boring Art, at the Art Show’s Glitzy Opening

You know you’ve got the evening’s top art ticket when the first people you see are Los Angeles-based megacollector Eli Broad and his wife Edythe. Last night Mr. Broad, who is building a private museum in downtown L.A., was among the first arrivals at the opening of the Art Show, the annual art fair of the Art Dealers Association of America. The event, which kicked off the fair-filled Armory Week, doubles as a benefit for the Henry Street Settlement.

If the presence of Mr. Broad–and other early arrivals like Beyeler Museum director Sam Keller and powerhouse art advisor Philippe Segalot–weren’t auspicious signs of an interesting evening, one was all but guaranteed by a message inscribed on the red walls of the booth of New York’s L&M Arts, just inside the entrance: “I will not make any more boring art,” from California conceptual artist John Baldessari, whose work the booth features.

Indeed, solo shows like the one of Mr. Baldessari are the bread and butter of this classy boutique fair now in its 24th year. Across the aisle from L&M, another New Yorker, Marian Goodman, has brought an elegant boothful of photographs by the late Francesca Woodman. The Woodman retrospective arrives at the Guggenheim next week, and there is a great deal of excitement about these. So, good luck trying to buy one! Even at the opening, many were already being spoken for.

Kitty-corner from Ms. Goodman, in a clever bit of art fair curation, is the booth of Metro Pictures, which features a solo show of early work by Cindy Sherman. (Like Woodman, Ms. Sherman invariably shows up in her own photographs; like Woodman, she has a retrospective up, at MoMA.) Metro’s booth was consistently packed all evening.

Fair frenzy has never really been a part of this event. It’s mostly a party–there isn’t the mad rush at the gates that accompanies, say, the morning VIP opening of Art Basel Miami Beach. “We do sell things tonight, but if we don’t we don’t get too bent out of shape,” said Michael Findlay of Acquavella Galleries, standing in front of a striking green and black Ellsworth Kelly painting and a handful of impressive Impressionist works. “At the end of the day we do pretty well at this fair. People see things tonight, and they might call me tomorrow morning about it. Or come in on Saturday.”

Peter Freeman devoted most of his booth to the Flemish proto-Surrealist James Ensor. The works were priced in euros. The economy is not so volatile these days, the dealer, who just opened a soaring new space in Soho, explained, but its still easier to list prices in the currency they are purchased. “They all come from under Belgian beds,” he laughed. The 1937 Coquillages (Seashells) was priced at €525,000 ($690,000), the ca. 1938-39 Le Christ agonisant (Christ in Agony) at €650,000 ($854,000).

David Nolan Gallery was all Jim Nutt. Subtle new graphite portraits by the septuagenarian were priced at $30,000, and a glowing almost-full-length portrait of a woman in (some kind of) uniform from 1969 had been placed on reserve.

At Anton Kern, one of the few dealers to opt for the Armory’s raw wood floor, California-born figurative sculptor artist Matthew Monahan was king. Two large metal sculptures of heads were priced in $230,000 each; large framed works on paper hovered at $32,000 to $42,000.

Another large contemporary sculpture in the show was the one by Yinka Shonibare at James Cohan Gallery, of a life-size headless man seated at a desk. Standing next to the piece, which is priced at $185,000, gallery director Elise Goldberg said she’d already sold a Simon Evans during the evening, and James Cohan himself sold a Fred Tomaselli. “People always buy at openings,” she said.

We asked Jane Cohan if she thought the fair did better coinciding with the Armory Show, as it does now. “Well I–” She broke off as a man approached. “It’s the handsome and charming Hugh Freund!”

It was, in fact, the New York lawyer. “I just got my checkbook out for a couple mil,” he joked. “You never know who needs it.” He said he hadn’t bought anything, but didn’t seem to discount the possibility.

Meanwhile, brand new, richly-colored abstract paintings by Suzan Frecon were flying off the wall at David Zwirner. He’d sold all of them by evening’s end, at prices ranging from $40,000 to $100,000. We asked Mr. Zwirner, who is in the midst of plans for his giant new space on West 20th Street, about his rumored plans for a gallery in London. “It’s an open secret that I’ve been talking about it and looking,” he said, “but we’re not quite ready yet to make great pronouncements.” We mentioned that Gagosian Gallery is opening, this week, a two-venue London show of one of Mr. Zwirner’s longtime artists, the photographer Thomas Ruff. Doesn’t that put pressure on? “That would be one good reason for me to be in London,” he said lightly. “That’s one reason. And I have thirty-five artists. So that’s thirty-five reasons to be in London.” He also revealed that, if not a gallery, he now has a man in Hong Kong: Charlie Spalding, who used to work at the Pace Gallery’s branch in Beijing.

Pace’s booth, around the corner from Zwirner’s, is packed with drawings of mischievous children by Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara. “Come and buy a naughty girl,” Pace president Marc Glimcher teased. We answered that we were in a position to come by a naughty girl, as in stand adjacent to one, but not to buy one. Lots of people did, though. Pace director Jeff Burch said the gallery had sold half of the drawings, which are priced from $16,000 to $50,000, a mere half hour into the opening. An hour in, the booth was sold out. It’s fair frenzy for some, it seems…

Mr. Nara himself spent much of his evening hanging out on the couch in the booth of his L.A. dealer, Blum & Poe, perhaps because Tim Blum speaks Japanese. “I got kissed on the mouth by Allen Ginsberg once!” a gentleman could be heard exclaiming to the artist, who nodded along thoughtfully. Blum & Poe’s booth of Henry Taylor paintings, priced at $15,000 to $60,000, had pretty much sold out midway through the vernissage, according to director Matt Bangser. The artist has a one-person show up at MoMA PS1 through April 9. Had our colleague Michael H. Miller been able to haggle a deal for the portrait of him Mr. Taylor painted while Mr. Miller was profiling him for The Observer earlier this year? “He got his photo,” Mr. Bangser replied. (More on that here.)

Collector and New Museum supporter Marty Eisenberg sat chatting with Carol Greene, whose booth had collages by Richard Hawkins like those in the current Whitney Biennial, a Michael Krebber painting from the early ’90s and new Rachel Harrisons (one sculpture with a plastic hot dog propped on a metal construction).

Also at the fair: MoMA chief painting and sculpture curator Ann Temkin, artist Rita Ackerman, Paula Cooper (who’s sitting out the March New York fairs), Art Basel co-director Marc Spiegler, and Whitney chairman emeritus Leonard Lauder.

The out-of-towners are always a nice surprise at the ADAA. Haven’t been to San Antonio, Texas, in a while? Lawrence Markey has brought out works by Fred Sandback, Suzan Frecon and a large John Cage made with smoke and fire, plus a 1968 paint on paper by Bill Bollinger (the late, little-known postminimalist whose touring retrospective hits SculptureCenter in April). Boston’s Barbara Krakow had a tall, thin slice of white cake by Claes Oldenburg, an edition of 200 made as a wedding souvenir. Its price: $10,000.

On our way out, we ran into an art advisor. “It’s that time of the evening,” we told him, “when we ask what you thought of everything.” He raved about the Francesca Woodmans and Cindy Shermans, and said that he didn’t think L&M’s Baldessari booth worked. Overall, he said he liked the fair, which has fans among people who find the Armory Show’s piers to be less…top-quality. “Well, let me put it this way,” he added. “It’s not going to get better at the Armory.”

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