If the price levels of the works that dealers have brought to the Armory Show's Pier 94 this year are any indication, confidence has indeed returned to the market — or at least the participants at New York's premiere contemporary art fair are betting it has. Front and center at the fair, in London gallery White Cube's expansive booth, is a monumental, blue-tinted, Francis Bacon-inspired painting by Damien Hirst — from the same series that appeared last fall at London’s Wallace Collection to little critical love. When Ukrainian collector Viktor Pinchuk swooped up the Wallace show's paintings, they are said to have gone for $1 million-plus apiece.
Denis Gardarin, a director at New York’s Sean Kelly Gallery, says that, while at last year's fair the gallery brought work that trended below the $50,000 range, this year it has committed to displaying pricier wares. In the gallery’s booth are two sculptures by Antony Gormley — whose Event Horizon installation will open at New York’s Madison Square Park on March 23rd — which are priced at $300,000 and $225,000. “Everyone is more optimistic,” Gardarin says.
Tuesday afternoon found dealers on the show’s Pier 94 — which features cutting-edge work, as opposed to the modern galleries showing in Pier 92 — unpacking crates and hanging artworks on booth walls. It also found many of them weighing their expectations during a time when there is still uncertainty, although there are signs that the economy is picking up.
“When I first arrived here I felt good,” says Chicago dealer Kavi Gupta, standing in front of a new painting priced at $20,000 by the young artist Angel Otero, which is already on reserve to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. “But there is a lot of work here and a lot of it looks very good, so there’s competition.” With 211 galleries on this pier alone, the Armory Show is bigger than ever this year.
“Some of my expectations have already been met,” says New York dealer Jack Shainman, who, while in the process of setting up his booth, had already parted with the large piece by the Ghanaian artist El Anatsui that hangs in his booth. He also had up several large sculptures by Nick Cave at $70,000 apiece, as well as a painting by Carlos Vega for $25,000 — all already on reserve.
Miami dealer Fred Snitzer has brought a brand new painting by Hernan Bas, priced at $80,000, for which he says he has already had a lot of interest. “Things aren’t what they were,” he says of the buying climate. “But the market isn’t gone, either.” He says this fair is as much about exposure for his artists as it is about sales — a bet-hedging approach to fairs that dealers have reliably taken since the bust. All the same, however, Snitzer says, “My expectation is to make contacts and sell. There’s no indication that won’t happen.” Hung to the dealer's left, a neon piece by Bert Rodriguez, priced at $25,000 — the last one available in an edition of three — provided an ironic take on his words. A riff on a famous piece by Bruce Nauman, it reads "The true artist makes useless shit for rich people to buy.”
“I never have any expectations,” says Chicago dealer Rhona Hoffman, whose booth is packed with several large paintings by Mickalene Thomas, including a large new landscape priced at $95,000, and also a sculpture by Spencer Finch involving candles that will be lit during the fair. (A fire warden, Hoffman says, will be on hand for the lighting.) “I show up and something happens," the dealer says of her recent experience at fairs. "There’s so much luck attached to these things.”
Whether the recession-based gestures toward modesty and communality that since the crash have popped up frequently at fairs — from modest, craft-based efforts to text-based works making light of the market — will be in force remains to be seen. Mickalene Thomas, however, interjected that she herself had just bought a sculpture by Henry Taylor from a show that artist opened at New York’s Rental Gallery two weeks ago. “That’s a story,” she remarked. “Artists buying artists!”
However, it seems that monumental, shiny work is still the exception at this fair, which finds many dealers showing smaller-sized pieces that are presumably easier both to ship and to sell. “Things feel safe,” one dealer said of the sampling of work on view before the opening. One notable exception is a huge aluminum sculpture of a pirate by Peter Coffin, at Paris gallery Emmanuel Perrotin. Recalling boom-time bling, it sits on a plinth that, Coffin points out, is officially “Hermes orange.” The unmissable piece is priced at $250,000.
While some dealers griped about the number of satellite fairs in town — a potential distraction for collectors — many seemed optimistic that the sheer number of events would energize buying. “When you combine Independent, the Art Show, and a strong Armory Show, there’s more energy in town than there has been the past three or four years,” says Roger Tatley, director at London’s Alison Jacques gallery.
The dealers in the Armory Show aren’t the only ones banking on the art fairs this week. At a press conference at the Art Show's Park Avenue Armory locale this morning, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was unrestrainedly boosterist about the market-driven festivities. “You don’t have to be an art lover to love this week," he enthused, saying that 50,000 people are expected to come to the city, with activity around the events generating $44 million and $1.8 million in tax revenue. Of course, in saying so he revealed himself once again to be a consummate businessman rather than an art connoisseur — something the mayor himself seemed to appreciate. Introducing Cultural Affairs Commissioner Kate Levin, he joked that her “job is to turn me from a philistine into someone who appreciates and understands art — probably a hopeless task.”