Bargains Were the New Bling at the Armory Show's VIP Opening, With Affordable Works Joining Blue-Chip Art for Lively Sales

Bargains Were the New Bling at the Armory Show's VIP Opening, With Affordable Works Joining Blue-Chip Art for Lively Sales

"This is the art dealer. He sells the things that are good for you. Why not purchase art?" So reads a silkscreen-on-canvas piece by Los Angeles artist Andrew Hahn, on display at the booth of New York gallery UNTITLED at this year's edition of New York's annual contemporary art fair, the Armory Show. All around the fair during its VIP preview yesterday, collectors took the bait, snapping up artworks by both emerging and established artists. By 3 p.m., UNTITLED had sold over 35 of Hahn's silkscreens, priced at an affordable $2,000 apiece.

[content:shareblock]

The opening-day crowd at this fair, which runs through March 6, was thick with prominent collectors like Mera and Donald Rubell, Rosa de la Cruz, Jerome Stern, Michael Ovitz, Anita and Poju Zabludowicz, John Phelan, and Andrew Ong.

[link:view-slideshow]

The quality of the crowd wasn't lost on Claude Simard, partner in New York's Jack Shainman Gallery. Simard said that although the fair seemed calmer than in years past, the quality of the clients had gone up. The highlight of Shainman's booth is a large 2010 piece by African artist El Anatsui, done in the artist's signature style of piecing together fragments from flattened liquor bottle caps. Priced at $850,000, it had been placed on reserve shortly after the fair opened. No fewer than ten works from Shainman's booth had sold just a few hours into opening day, including a "sound suit" sculpture by Nick Cave, priced at $85,000, and a striking Barkley Hendricks painting of a seated woman, for $130,000.

[content:advertisement-center]

Although the market appears to be healthy once again, art fair bling may well turn out to be a relic of the most recent boom. At UNTITLED, Hahn's silkscreens rest in stacks against $576.60 worth of pennies — to be exact, a floor overlaid with a repeated hexagonal pattern of pennies, by Los Angeles artist Ry Rocklen. (Priced at $800 per hexagon, the gallery has sold about 600 square feet of penny floor.) In 2007, such a piece might have featured coins polished to a high gleam, but many of Rocklen's are faded, and his statement is modest: the piece is titled "Lucky Penny Tile Floor," and every penny is, accordingly, face up. "Maybe here at a fair it seems to be a bit more about capitalism," Rocklen reflected, adding that he feels that with its minimalist pattern and choice of material, it might just bridge the gap between Carl Andre and Hans Haacke. "In a different space, it could come across as more poetic." Currency the piece certainly is; bling it decidedly isn't. "But you know," Rocklen says playfully, "Someone once told me to do shiny things at art fairs."

The era of the big, shiny art fair thing is not, however, quite burned out. Every fair has one statement artwork, and at the Armory this year that would be Chilean artist Ivan Navarro's sprawling, glowing neon-lit fence, put on unmissable display by New York dealer Paul Kasmin. Titled "The Armory Fence," the megawatt sculpture, which continues in the time-honored tradition of art fair bling tradition, runs for 82 linear feet around an empty patch of floor. There was no plaque or signage, and no clear area in which to find the dealers — they sat on a bench outside the work's perimeter — causing many fairgoers to ask other bystanders who the work was by. It is certainly one way to drum up attention for the artist, who represented his country in 2009's Venice Biennale, and has his first show also opening at Kasmin's gallery today. The piece, which costs $40,000 per seven-foot section, is intended to be modular and versatile enough to be displayed indoors, outdoors, or a combination of the two. "American institutions have been making inquiries," says gallery director Nick Olney.

Meanwhile, other dealers were making statements of a quieter, though no less compelling, nature. In a booth packed with such gallery stalwarts as Roe Ethridge, Andrea Bowers, and Jan Mancuska, New York dealer Andrew Kreps has created an alcove to house a suite of works by the late artist David Wojnarowicz, who has come to national renown recently due to the Smithsonian's decision to censor his "Fire in My Belly." Here seven brightly colored plaster busts from his 1984 series "Heads" are arrayed on shelves, all with their eyes grotesquely slitted in apparent agony and each with a different embellishment — one had a map patterned on his face, another a gauze band strapped across his mouth. "A collector spent six years bringing them together, and then decided to part with them," Kreps says, adding that this collector began talking about reselling the pieces before the censorship scandal. The set of seven — out of a known 23 in existence — sold for $300,000 to a longtime gallery client.

It isn't just private collectors who are opening their wallets. At New York's I-20, hand-painted studies for painted-metal "module" sculptures by artist Don Dudley were selling like hotcakes at $5,000 apiece. Twenty-five had sold in total, with a set of seven being picked up by the Whitney Museum. I-20 owner Paul Judelson also sold the large 1975 painting by Sylvia Sleigh titled "Annunciation," which depicts a man with a voluminous afro standing in a garden, to the bank Credit Suisse, for $85,000; the bank intends to donate the work to an unnamed museum. "We sold the whole stand, basically," says Judelson.

Where museums weren't the destination for artworks, their planned exhibitions of artists, crucial to endorsement, may have contributed to collector sales. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art curator Gary Garrels is currently planning a solo show at the museum of works by Richard Aldrich, who was in last year's Whitney Biennial. On the opening day at the Armory, the two Aldrich paintings on display at New York gallery Bortolami sold swiftly: a large work featuring an unfolded case for Proust's "In Search of Lost Time" went for $25,000, and a smaller work for $8,000. And two other works by the artist that weren't on view also sold, for $8,000 apiece. "Richard is very well supported," said gallery director Christine Messineo.

The large amount of business being done at the Armory may simply be attributable to a revived art market. "We just had our best January and February ever," says New York dealer Sean Kelly. "The market has been strong, and continues to be strong." At the fair, he had already sold pieces by Leandro Erlich, Robert Mapplethorpe, the collective Los Carpinteros, and a recent addition to its roster, Kehinde Wiley. Two recent Wiley paintings on paper, in hot demand, flew off the walls at $40,000 apiece.

But even in a booming market, a bargain is a bargain. New York's Lehmann Maupin has given its booth over to a solo show of postcard works by well-known British duo Gilbert & George,  pieces made from postcards the artists pick up while on walks, arrange, and frame. Some 25 of them had sold, for £16,750 (around $26,000) apiece, and gallery partner David Maupin attributes their desirability in part to their affordability. "They are very well priced," he says. "What can you get that is unique at this price by famous artists?"

Although bustling business was being done, some found the fair to be lacking in a sense of discovery. While he raved about works by particular artists, "lovely discoveries" such as Theaster Gates at Chicago's Kavi Gupta, art advisor Todd Levin, director of Levin Art Group, said that for the most part he found this year's edition "functional and flat." He expressed nostalgia for the Armory's beginnings in the mid-1990s as the Gramercy Hotel Fair, when it was "a real place for discoveries," with White Cube founder Jay Jopling giving a room over to a young Tracey Emin, and pulling out transparencies of works by a then-emerging Damien Hirst. One curator, who would only comment anonymously, says that among the international fairs she attends, the Armory is "the least exciting."

And despite the fact that her gallery has already made a number of sales, Rachel Lehmann, co-owner of Lehmann Maupin, says this fair has always been one where, unlike at other international fairs like Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, the gallery tends not to meet new clients, but rather to sell to existing ones, with sales staggered throughout the fair's duration. "It's really a local base."

That may not be good news in the long term; in order to compete in an increasingly saturated market, art fairs have to deliver their dealer clients the most bang for the buck, and that can mean delivering new clients, especially ones from emerging markets. With the growth of art fairs around the world, one question is increasingly raised during the week of the Armory Show: Does New York, a city rich with galleries and museums, one that often seems like an art fair all year round, really need an art fair? Some important dealers do this fair for very particular reasons. Hauser & Wirth, which has locations in London, Zurich and New York, continues to do the Armory as a way of putting its two-year-old New York branch "in an international context" says gallery director Neil Wenman. In the fair's opening hours, Hauser & Wirth sold several works by gallery artists, including Martin Creed, Louise Bourgeois, and Paul McCarthy; prices ranged from $25,000-250,000.

Doing decent business at the fair didn't guarantee that blue-chip dealers weren't ambivalent about this particular event. Paris dealer Thaddaeus Ropac was to be seen fielding calls from collectors on his cell phone in his jam-packed booth. Several major works had already sold, including Georg Baselitz's mammoth 2006 "Adieu (Remix)" painting for €600,000, a signature 2008 Tony Cragg sculpture titled "Bent of Mind" for €520,000, an untitled 2010 painting by Jason Martin for £65,000, and a Robert Longo drawing for $30,000. "I think it's active, it's good," Ropac says of the fair, noting that while he had sold mainly to Americans, "it's surprising how many more Europeans there are than we expected."

And yet Ropac felt some dissatisfaction in the air with the way the fair is being run. "It's hard to understand where the Armory Show is going," he says. "The Modern section... I don't know if it's working. It needs to improve. And we're missing some of the New York galleries that have left — it's a pity if the galleries of New York aren't 100 percent behind this fair. The fair has all of the ingredients, so to see this happen is sad."

This year the fair lost two prominent exhibitors, New York's David Zwirner and New York and Beijing's the Pace Gallery. Both galleries are participating in the Art Show, the annual fair of the Art Dealers Association of America, which runs concurrently with the Armory Show; in years past, the galleries had booths at both fairs.

One thing many dealers agree on is that, despite some talk in recent years to the contrary, they can't imagine not having a fair to attend in the Big Apple. "New York is a city without parallel in this world, and we want to support it, and keep in contact with curators here," says Tim Marlow, director of heavyweight London gallery White Cube. The gallery has already made multiple sales, including an Antony Gormley sculpture, for £250,000, two recent abstract pieces by Sergei Jensen for €38,000 and €42,000, as well as pieces that were not on view by Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. Marlow didn't mince words. "New York does need a fair."