At the apogee of the last decade’s art market boom, a decently connected dealer needed exert only a little effort to make a very big sale. People owning expensive work hotly desired by others would release it without too much of a fuss so long as you caught them at a quiet moment with the right invented figure for their piece. A half-million dollar connection between seller and buyer would usually be brokered by three or five intermediaries, negotiated over five or eight perfunctory phone calls. The deal itself would be executed unceremoniously with a fax, a wire transfer, a last-minute secret price gouge by the broker closest to the piece; the pie would then be divided. I was, for several years, the recipient of such slices. A few hours work for a cut on a sale that covered a month’s operating costs kept us louche on our asses in those days, indulging the hours until cocktails were allowed. It was easy because the market was moving and the art was moving through it beautifully. All a dealer had to do was move with it.
Nowhere was this easy triumph more apparent than on the international art fair circuit. At those weeklong dealer and collector conventions the secret lazybones moneymaking techniques of the gallery went live, and public. The market showed its colors, and showed off. Said half-million dollar deals could and did take place in a matter of minutes on the trading floor; dealers colluded and celebrated and psyched each other out and took each other out to dinner all week long. The boom-time art fair atmosphere caused my dealer blood to boil in the veins and eyes to blur. Everything was happening so fast, and perspective and caution would inevitably end up shattered, redundant, with the first big sale. Working on a Cecil B. DeMille-scaled production number of 200-plus international dealers all making uncountable money, very quickly and at the same time, sparked an adrenaline rush very much like the cascading empowerment of being young in a nightclub, where horniness in a horny crowd is rewarded, even wise.
Onward, then, to the spectacle of a new financial age. The Art Dealers Association of America’s Art Show is a small (70 dealer) and well-established fair whose 21st edition took place in the Park Avenue Armory last week. It was the city’s first major contemporary art fair since the market suffocated under its own blubber last summer. Everything has changed. The hormonal throb has died on the scene, and the ADAA fair was frozen. Stripped of the smothering, sticky fabulousness of ever-cresting affluence, the commercial dealing of art can now be seen by everyone for what it really is: salesmanship of a commodity with a negotiable price, exactly equivalent to second-hand cars pushed around a lot.
When hype has no currency, art that belongs to the last marketplace cannot hide its impotence. Dario Robleto’s vitrined ribbons and reliquaries and top hats, drippy handmade bundlings of the past and the present, have lost their power by expressing no urgency. Godhead heavyweights like Joseph Kosuth have nothing to offer now by being high-handed and didactic: their dryness shrivels into desiccation.
When a gallery cannot hide behind a curtain of exclusivity, the viewer sees the gallery naked, and the aesthetic mistakes that make it human. Two latter-day editions of Larry Bell’s smoked glass cube, a sculptural icon of the late ’60s in both pop and minimalism, were crammed sloppily in a booth’s corners, cheapened and unmagical, with a Sheriff auction’s pathetic, unthinking presentation. It was a miscue almost ugly enough to undo warm feelings for the original work, a perennial must-see at MoMA. Another booth dedicated its entire display to a series of Donald Judd print portfolios. Stark and fat and macho like Judd often was, all the prints shouted at each other until the booth was filled with pointless, annoying noise. If they were selling, they’d divide around the country and quiet down, but they blared together instead, stranded. These are the abiding wails of commercial art in purgatory.
When artists can be seen as a working people instead of an aristocracy, their work is allowed to be tenuous, humble or small-scaled. ’90s hotshots Laura Owens and Matthew Ritchie presented new works that came off as studies, art for the bathroom instead of the boardroom, and it felt great. At the peak of his powers, Ritchie made gigantic installations justified by hypercomplex mythological and mathematical gobbledygook. One of them stretches the width of the Olympic-size swimming pool on the MIT campus, if that gives you an idea of the unrealistic brainpower expected of his audience. His work at the Art Show primarily occupied itself with gesture: concerns for humans, by a human. This was the note on which I left the lethargic, miserable ADAA fair. Let’s take heart and start from here.-Bones
The Armory Show, one of the big three annual fairs in the art world, opens to the public on the midtown piers over the Hudson in two weeks from today. All readers are encouraged to attend this overwhelming affair, and take the spirit of this week’s column as a primer.
Next week, Bones visits Martin Kippenberger’s The Problem Perspective at the Museum of Modern Art, a New York event he has been anticipating for several years. Eleven years since his death, Kippenberger remains the artist to discuss, and now is our best chance to discuss him yet.