No Longer an Upstart, a Buoyant NADA Brings in Big Sales and Art-World Power Brokers

No Longer an Upstart, a Buoyant NADA Brings in Big Sales and Art-World Power Brokers
Clifford Owens's "Anthology (nsenga knight)," 2011 (detail), on view at NADA
(Courtesy the artist and On Stellar Rays)

The NADA Art Fair opened this morning with the starting-gun burst of energy that a few years ago characterized the vernissage of Art Basel Miami Beach — but here, it wasn't only collectors with high-priced spies who knew where to find the choicest works. Instead, a partnership with online art site Paddle8 allowed gallerists to preview their wares online, so the most enthusiastic buyers were able to make a beeline to coveted pieces right off the bat. That so many exhibitors sold out (or nearly sold out) their booths in the opening hours, combined with the overall quality of work on display, signaled that NADA, always a fan favorite, has arrived as a main contender.

"This is really good this year," said Beatrix Ruf, the director and curator of Kunsthalle Zurich. "The great thing about Art Basel in Basel is that you have the main fair and then you have Liste, and both are very high quality, very rigorously curated. I think this is the first year NADA is reaching Liste standards," she said, referring to the highly-regarded European fair for emerging international galleries.

Compared to the main fair, the price point was much lower — most galleries topped out around $50,000, and some works were priced as low as $600 — but the array of art on view was by and large more novel, and unexpected. At New York's Eleven Rivington, a small, darkened room contained a selection of films projected on paintings by Dave Miko and Tom Thayer (recently shown at the Kitchen), while a back room held five exquisitely detailed graphite drawings and one sculpture by Hilary Berseth, a young Pennsylvania-based artist. Augusto Arbizo, the gallery director, said that he "uses the fair as a way to introduce new artists and new bodies of work," and that he had sold out his entire booth with the exception of two projection works.

"I've been doing NADA for five years and it's our best NADA," said Arbizo. "Every collector I've talked to says they're really enjoying themselves, and even the collectors who missed stuff in the morning rush, they stayed on to educate themselves." As for the unsold projections, he noted that "video is always hard at a smaller fair." Indeed, they were rare at NADA, with an exception being the demanding 72-minute video “Wall” by Corin Hewitt at Laurel Gitlen Gallery.

Sales of rough-hewn sculptures and paintings abounded. The New York dealer Simon Preston managed to sell everything in his booth — from a $22,000 Michelle Lopez aluminum wrap sculpture to a $26,000 Caragh Thuring painting to a pair of $5,000 Josh Tonsfeldt paintings — with the exception of a small ring of horsehair that was lying on an underexposed photograph on the floor. He had asked Tonsfeldt to create the work for the booth the night before as a contrast to Lopez's sculpture. Asked how much it was going for, Preston shrugged and said, "I think it's going to be $3,500." He added, "You can be a little more playful at NADA."

Another creative approach could be found at Foxy Productions, where the walls were papered with dark abraded compositions by Gabriel Hartley that resembled early Abstract Expressionist paintings. On top of this ground were four large paintings by the artist, priced at $12,500 apiece, and about a dozen smaller canvases leaned against the wall for $5,200 and $3,000, depending on the size. Nearly all of these had sold. "It's been an incredible success," said the gallery's John Thomson.

Just because the prices were generally lower doesn’t mean there weren’t any big sales. At New York’s Leo Koenig, a series of nine 1968 photographs by Sigmar Polke sold to a private collector for $175,000. “Galleries here have work by artists that are also at Basel,” noted NADA director Heather Hubbs. Compared to the main fair, which boasted classic examples of blue-chip artists, the work at NADA was less traditional and smaller in size. Polke, for example, is known for his paintings, but produced lesser-known photographs over a three-year period beginning in 1966. The dreamy, blurred images on view at Leo Koenig featured wire tendrils slightly reminiscent of Karl Blossfeldt’s early photographs.

Other six-figure sales came from larger, significant work by rising stars. The Lower East Side’s On Stellar Rays gallery sold the entire first edition of Clifford Owens’s latest series, now on view at MoMA PS1, to a private collector for $169,000. (Two images from the second edition of the series were hanging in the gallery’s booth, but the collector had been considering the purchase for a while, said the gallery.) Owens’s sharp photographs document a series of performances that took place during his residency at PS1 last year: he asked a multigenerational group of African-American artists, including Glenn Ligon and Kara Walker, to submit a performance score and then executed their instructions throughout the museum. (The gallery also sold two large colored pencil drawings by Israeli-Austrian artist Zipora Fried to a private collector for $20,000 apiece. After purchasing one awash in purple pencil from the gallery’s booth, the collector bought a second in red, sight unseen.)

Toronto’s MKG127 had a big-ticket item as well: a life-size sculpture of a black-robed Klansman by Dean Drever made of 7,314 sheets of individually cut paper painted with shoe polish, priced at $127,500. It hadn’t sold by the end of the first day, though. “This would take a really particular collector,” observed one gallery worker. “It’s a difficult piece.”

James Fuentes sold a purple, Matisse-esque interior scene by John McAllister for $28,000 and another bright painting by Noam Rappaport for $12,000. “It’s the best fair yet,” he said, noting that he sold many pieces to new clients, including museum trustees and the owners of a private collection museum.

Indeed, museum representatives could be found peering at works throughout the fair. Among the institutions that sent scouts were LACMA, MOCA, CAM St. Louis, MCA Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, MCA Denver, and the Speed Art Museum. Charles Venable, the director of the Speed, was touring the booths with his partner. “If you want to get a picture of what’s going on, you have to come here,” Venable said. “These are people who go out of their way to be a little edgier. They’re not as concerned about money, about shipping costs. And you can get a better picture of what’s going on than you do at the super-refined galleries at the main fair.”

Dealer Lisa Cooley, meanwhile, had sold out of work by rising star Andy Coolquitt, an artist with an upcoming museum show himself (at the Blaffer Art Museum in Houston) whose whimsical 'energy stick' leaning against the wall made from stacks of found rainbow-colored lighters caught many a glance from passerby. By 3 p.m. on opening day she had already sold almost 95 percent of her booth, she said, as well as five works from her stash in storage. “The exhibitors have been doing the fair for a while now and they really know what they’re doing,” she said. “This is not the same fair it was eight years ago.”

Formed by a group of gallerists over drinks in 2002, NADA has grown from a small band of Lower East Side dealers to an international collective of over 200 galleries, individuals, and nonprofits. The group’s annual fair reinvented itself two years ago with a risky move from the Ice Palace in West Miami to the Deauville Beach Resort, located a 20-minute drive from Art Basel Miami Beach's convention center home. Since successfully establishing itself as a destination fair in its own right, it has become increasingly selective. This year, the fair adopted a new layout and expanded to a third room, giving it a truly settled-in feel. “I think the fair looks better, more open,” said Hubbs. Though it featured 14 additional exhibitors, with the extra space “it’s not super crowded,” she added. “The idea was not to increase the number of galleries that we could show but to give the galleries more options.”

Also new to the fair this year was an option for bigger booths. (NADA now offers galleries small, medium, and large booths, as well as micro-booths for emerging spaces to mount solo exhibitions.) “The larger booth sizes make it feel more grown-up now,” said Simon Preston. Many of the galleries that opted for the large size — James Fuentes, Jack Hanley, and CANADA among them — were ones that had returned to NADA after “graduating” to the main fair and showing with Basel’s young gallery section, Art Positions.

CANADA, for one, had signaled its homecoming with a notably refined booth this year, distinguished by a glass coffee table with a flower vase and a white leather couch that played off of Joanna Malinowska’s rattling washing machine sculpture, “In Search of Primordial Matter.” (That 2011 piece, which was recently displayed at SculptureCenter, contains such materials as “a handful of collected darkness” and “Cartesian doubt," and is priced at $10,000 — the only thing at the booth that hadn’t sold.) The fair was “ripping it” this year, according to the gallery’s Philip Grauer, who had spent several years doing NADA and then moved on to the main fair’s Positions and Nova sections for two years, before returning this year when he was asked to join NADA’s board.

“I’ve always liked NADA, it played a really pivotal role to the gallery, and I’m happy to be here,” he said, noting that he had high hopes for the fair’s development. “I would like to see this fair be able to sell things at any price point. The idea that this is a spare-change fair is a misconception."