It’s not often that you leave an art fair in a better mood than when you arrived, but that’s how I felt after visiting Pulse New York Thursday morning. The official start of Frieze Week was marked by a particularly cold and rainy day, which seems to be the case every single year. But entering the Metropolitan Pavilion sopping wet, I was greeted by Tamara Gayer’s “All the World’s Affair,” 2014, a series of geometric images that explore the concept of contemporary art fairs, pasted directly on the front doors. The choice of the artwork seems like a gesture of self-awareness by the organizers, coming at a crucial point in the fair’s history as it undergoes an overhaul on the eve of its 10th anniversary. Pulse was abuzz as early as 10 a.m., with frenzied, mimosa-fueled conversations taking place between the preview’s early collectors and gallerists — it already felt a world away from the Pulse I saw last year, with a refreshing anticipatory energy that seemed to be shared by everyone.
Winkleman Gallery’s Curatorial Research Lab, which displayed the vibrant, tech-inspired psychedelic work of Shane Hope, was perfectly positioned across from GUSFORD Gallery’s exhibition of Hassan Hajj’s neon-hued, patterned photo portraits. The two galleries, in combination with Andy Yoder’s Pulse Project “Early One Morning,” 2014, a giant globe made of matchsticks, doused the entrance of the fair with a huge explosion of color.
Other highlights included Jessica Lichtenstein’s “Spring, Four Seasons Series,” 2014, at Gallery Nine 5, a series of four rounded c-prints on acrylic that depict bucolic landscapes rendered behind what, on first glance, appears to be a serene digital haze, but up close are actually layered images of the same female figure. Laurent Lamarche’s microbiology-inspired sculptures and photograms, shown by Montreal gallery Art Mûr, are made from recycled plastics and displayed on glass tables laid out like the contents of a science laboratory. Simon Vega was hands-down the artist of the fair — his Pulse Project, “The Whitney Museum of Central American Art, A Post Apocalyptic Dream,” 2014, shown by MARTE Contemporaneo from El Salvador, reimagines the museum as if it were meant to house art from the third world. De Buck Gallery also exhibited a series of Vega’s drawings.
Zadok Gallery from Miami was the greatest surprise find at the fair. The work of the two artists it brought — Pavel Acosta and Peter Sarkisian — straddled the line between sculpture and something else that hasn’t quite found a category yet. Acosta’s painstakingly detailed appropriations of famous paintings that hang at the Met, made from dry wall scrapings, were juxtaposed with Sarkisian’s 3-D printed robot sculptures, illuminated by digitally mapped video sequences and tucked into a dark, intimate corner.
The show doesn’t lack for historically important works either, something atypical for a fair that usually keeps a strict roster of contemporary exhibitors. Photographs by established artists like self portraitist Tseng Kwong Chi can be found at East Hampton gallery Eric Firestone’s booth, along with panoramic shots of graffitied New York City subway cars from the 1980s — printed appropriately on metallic paper — by Henry Chalfant.
What worked this year? The integration of the booths was seamless, ridding the fair of the usual hierarchy associated with separate solo booths and project sections. Visitors were able to view the work with little bias, allowing for some great surprises along the way. Each booth was custom tailored to the gallery and the work. Overall, the fair was tightly curated, and the consensus from gallerists was that fair director Helen Toomer’s guiding hand was just about everywhere, adding a cohesiveness that most fairs lack. The floor plan strategically moved people in one direction, forcing visitors to see the whole fair. Given the small size of the event, the quality of the works on display, and the customized layout of each booth, there wasn’t much room for aimless wandering.
What didn’t work? The Pulse Pause section was a witty way to brand the lounge area, but seating was sparse. Space is obviously limited at most New York fair venues, and Pulse has been reeled in to mostly positive results, but I wouldn’t have minded a bit more elbowroom. The Pulse Perspectives roundtable was tucked in between booths, also without much seating. To maximize engagement with the visitors without disrupting the flow of traffic, it would have made sense to position this program in the open area at the front of the fair, where visitors could sit and listen without crowding the aisles.
It will be interesting to see what Pulse is able to accomplish without such spatial constraints in Miami, at its new location on the beach. If this Frieze Week’s edition is any indication of what Toomer can achieve with her all-in curator’s approach, then visitors in Miami should have high expectations. Pulse is what an art fair can and should be: a chance to see some of the best work out there, and an opportunity to discover artists and galleries you can’t believe you haven’t already heard of. It also never loses sight, nor tries to hide, what it truly is: a commercial vehicle for galleries and artists to sell work. We’ve said in the past that “the art at Pulse tends more to the beautiful than the challenging.” That’s not necessarily the case this year, but there sure is a lot of aesthetically pleasing work on view, and in the business of art, is that a bad thing?
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