The Hierarchy of Art Fair Bathrooms: A Narrative Journey

The deluge of art fairs began at the ADAA Art Show, which we found to be classy and manageable. It

Image of the bathroom at James Fuentes's room at the Dependent Art Fair. We did not use this bathroom. (Photo by Rozalia Jovanovic)

The deluge of art fairs began at the ADAA Art Show, which we found to be classy and manageable. It is held at the Park Avenue Armory, a masterpiece of late Victorian architecture that takes up an entire city block. At the fair, there is also a full bar, so the bathroom situation was crucial. We should mention here: Our anxiety about public restrooms approaches a George Costanza level of fretfulness. We spent at least as much time thinking about where the nearest john was during Armory Week as we did thinking about art. The bathroom at an art fair is like the art fair in microcosm–a metonym representing the vibe of the event as a whole.

We’ll come right out and say it: the Park Avenue Armory is our favorite place to pee in the entire city. The bathrooms are secluded in the basement. The men’s room is at the other end of a long corridor from the women’s. It has no urinals, just stalls, so there is this wonderful feeling of democratic privacy. If it would have been appropriate–and in no universe that we actually live in would it ever be–we would have just went in there to think, scribble some notes, maybe enjoy a canape in silence.

The Armory Show exists at the end of the line, as it were, on two massive piers on the Hudson River. You have to cross a highway to get to it and it’s difficult enough even approaching the structure that when you finally do arrive, it feels more like a mirage in the desert. At a media preview Wednesday morning, we were tucked into one of Pier 94’s endless rooms for a press conference that started an hour later than we thought it would. A lot of coffee was consumed. We waited for a time for a bathroom–one that looked like it had been built into the room specifically for the week of fairs (though we weren’t sure). It was one of those single-person, pale white, fluorescent light deals and it was occupied. Our waiting ended as Glenn Lowry–the director at the Museum of Modern Art–emerged, wearing a nice suit and a purple scarf. Our journalist instinct displaced our physiological needs and we requested he answer a few questions for The New York Observer. (Again, that was probably entirely inappropriate! A man needs at least two minutes after emerging from the bathroom to center himself and reacquaint with his surroundings.)

“I’m not doing interviews,” he said, and left the building entirely. Fair enough!

This seemed like a worthy metaphor. We felt like we were being told “no” a lot. Other metaphors we heard for the Armory Show that we liked were: “Whole Foods,” “a bank,” “Wal-Mart.” Loved the David Zwirner booth, though.

We spent most of Thursday at Independent, housed in the former Dia building in Chelsea. The name “Independent” is obviously in reference to the fact that this is a different kind of fair (in fact, its founders call it a “temporary exhibition forum” instead of a “fair”), but the word could just as easily described the pleasant and liberating feeling one had using the bathroom, even though that was certainly not anyone’s intent. In fact, the more we write here, the more we feel a bit like a psychopath. Sorry, art world!

Each of the three floors at Independent had a long row of single-person rooms that were sleek and Minimal, like the Dan Flavin lights that adorn the building’s staircase. Even better, they were tucked away behind a wall, so Gavin Brown and Andrew Kreps couldn’t see when you had to take care of some business while they were, uh, also conducting their own business (e.g. “selling art”). There was a long sink situated outside of the rooms, which is the only part of the whole bathroom-going experience that we don’t mind being public. It’s important to wash your hands, people!

Armory Week culminated for us on Saturday, at the Dependent Art Fair at the Comfort Inn on Ludlow. The participants had co-opted the hotel’s rooms. The good thing here was that each room had its own place where a person could relieve him or herself–but it was a little too crowded for us to partake. Many of the bathrooms also had art on display, so it didn’t seem right.

That didn’t stop some people, however. Over at the room of Ramiken Crucible, the bathroom door was closed and a sheet of computer paper was taped to the door. It had the words “Michael Krebber Memorial & Graduate Research Center” written on it. Inside, there was a lit candle and music was playing softly.

“I’m gonna take a wiz,” one guest told Blaize Lehane, who runs the gallery with Mike Egan.

“Just don’t blow out that candle,” Mr. Lehane said. “It’s an important wiz.”

The Hierarchy of Art Fair Bathrooms: A Narrative Journey