There is little at an art fair that could surprise me at this point. I say that not because I’ve seen it all, but because I have honestly seen quite a lot. A naked woman in a cage made of flowers. A real live donkey just hanging out alone in a room all day long with only the company of an ornate chandelier. An actual stabbing. This is not to say that there might not be plenty more of the unexpected and unusual to look forward to on the fair circuit, but the scene has become so noticeably saturated with shock and awe art campaigns that if you told me a gallery had brought an army of purebred hairless kittens and was selling them for $5,000 a piece just to make an argument for the parallels between the exotic animal trade and the art market, I’d be like “OK.”
So imagine my surprise when I walked into New York’s premiere art fair, the Armory Show (which runs through March 5), and witnessed a concrete pillar as large as a dump truck floating through the air like an untethered balloon. Was it science? A miracle? Or simply a stunt? The answer is a complex algorithm of all of the above, but equally amazing was that my curiosity was genuinely piqued.
The sculpture by Studio Drift, an Amsterdam-based art collective founded by Ralph Nauta and Lonneke Gordijn, hovered weightless in Pace Gallery’s supersized booth, slowly rotating and spinning on axis without ever touching the ground to the wonderment of a gawking crowd. Fairgoers snapped pictures of Drifter with their iPhones, and examined the airborne behemoth from all sides, curious as to what optical trickery could be responsible for such a physics-defying spectacle. An informational pamphlet explains that the piece is comprised of concrete, robotics and an assortment of mixed materials, but no further clues are provided to that might help solve riddle. “Everyone wants to know how it works,” Nauta told me. “I don’t even know how it works.” Nauta’s cagey answer made no difference; as Drifter sailed above the crowd I was hypnotized.
Finally, the crowd grew to a size that was no longer conducive for quiet and reflective viewing, and so I was forced to press onward. I shimmied between the usual fair set: a woman talking animatedly on her phone while pushing a dog wearing a bejeweled collar in a baby carriage, prominent American art collector and fair circuit regular Donald Rubell, art dealers sneaking sips of “boxed water” between sales, a man who could have been actor Gael Garcia Bernal’s doppelganger and Artforum publisher Knight Landesman clad in bright red suit.
Studio Drift’s sculpture had set the bar high, but I encountered no shortage of captivating work in my travels along the long, LONG trek from one end of Pier 92 to the far side of 94. This is the first year Armory Show director Benjamin Genocchio (full disclosure: he was once my editor at different publication) has been able to put his stamp on the fair. He’s done away with the geographically-themed focus section and intermixed contemporary and modern dealers between the piers. He’s also inserted an flashy program of large-scale installation works throughout, making way for a sports field-sized installation by Yayoi Kusama and a precarious sculpture by Sebastian Errazuriz featuring a dangling upright piano over the champagne bar. For me at least, I believe the gamble has paid off. There needs to be at least some appeal (besides networking) for non-buyers to come out to Manhattan’s far West side and view art on what is traditionally one of the most unpredictable weeks for weather in the year. And big art is a pretty good reason.
At Amsterdam gallery Ron Mandos’ booth, visitors disappeared in an out of Dutch artist Levi van Veluw’s interactive installation The Monolith. From the outside, the work appeared to be nothing more than a simple, large black box. But a cleverly hidden door led to a dimly lit room, also painted completely black, containing hundreds of glittering coal lined shelves and a workbench, which a spokesperson for the gallery told me held at least 3,000 pieces of anthracite coal. I stepped cautiously inside and he closed the door behind me, leaving me alone in the dark until my eyes adjusted to reveal the soft, almost iridescent light from overhead LEDs bouncing off the uneven facets of the roughly hewn coal. The noise from outside was muffled, and I wondered how long I could remain in this peaceful sanctum before I had to give the next person their turn to try out van Veluw’s room.
Nearby, artist Patricia Cronin’s 1998 installation Tack Room, originally shown at New York’s White Columns. A cluttered square room made of four plywood walls and strewn with hay features horse saddles and bridles, show ribbons, equine-shaped party lights, old copies of Spur, Practical Horseman and Equus and a selection of Cronin’s portraits of the noble beasts. The work, she told me, explores themes of female autonomy and power, and a loose and longtime dream of someday achieving enough success to own a horse herself. Buts its the underlying historical narrative of women on horseback—from riding sidesaddle to appearing in full page adverts for Bloomingdales wearing breeches—that can be gleaned from Cronin’s assemblage of images which is even more timely today as it was when it was first shown.
But perhaps it was at Belgium dealer Axel Vervoordt’s booth where the challenge which perpetually faces Armory Show organizes manifested most clearly. Visitors queued in front of a wooden shack titled Art Vending Machine, taking their turn to feed a dollar into a small opening in exchange for an artwork of their choice from a menu scrawled in black paint with options such as “Bordered Painting,” “Proper Painting” and “Is This Still a Painting?” Once they made their choice, a booth attendant delivered their order through a cardboard tube into the shack, where one of the youngest members living members (at 78 years old) of the experimental Japanese art collective Gutai, Sadaharu Horio sat inside on his knees, churning out rapid-fire paintings. Once complete, he’d slip the work through an open slot on the floor out to his paying customers. In keeping with the Gutai’s conceptually philosophy, the performance is less about the final imagery as it is the act of completing the work, dealer Noach Vander Beken told me. Horio was set to perform each day at the fair for three blocks of 90 minutes, and the money earned through the vending machine would be donated to charity; mostly likely Planned Parenthood, a suggestion he’d heard all morning from visitors to the booth.
I stood and watched the line move, and the paintings fly out of the vending machine. Some visitors, I assumed, knew they’d be taking home an original work of art by one of the 20th century’s most important living Japanese artists. Others probably had little idea just how significant Horio’s contributions to art history have been—the Gutai were the subject of a major retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2013 and have enjoyed a renaissance on the art market in the years since—and were just happy enough to be leaving with a piece of art they could afford. A couple strolled by, paused for a moment to observe the commotion, before the woman let out an audible “Womp, womppp,” and walked on. Everybody’s a critic.
The challenge of drawing discerning buyers and open-minded crowds to the piers is real. This week alone, nearly half a dozen other fairs are being held concurrently with the Armory Show throughout the city, as well as gallery openings and museum shows. For the art enthusiast, there’s no shortage of visual stimulation. On my way to the coat check, I passed Los Angeles gallery Kayne Griffin Corcoran’s booth and from the corner of my eye a soft glowing light caught my attention. I was tired, I was over stimulated, and I’d run out of storage space on my iPhone so taking pictures was no longer an option. But while I couldn’t capture the radiant colors emanating from the two light installations by James Turrell affixed to the walls, I was, yet again, pleasantly caught by surprise.