On the first day of the Armory Show, above and outside Pier 94, 60-year-old downtown holdover Kenny Scharf was standing on a hydraulic jack in wraparound shades and a black skullie pulled tight, effortlessly chucking up spraycan figures on four 25-foot canvases with the zoned-in panache of a graffiti writer. People spectated, and the artist posed for photographs. His last panel, knocked out in an hour, was crowd-pleasing poetry for the city he was currently defacing: “I heart NY,” spelled out in anthropomorphic letters.
Volume was down at the fair. Not the crowd, which was thinner than previous years while still horribly claustrophobic, but the actual decibel level. Big talk from big voices is markedly out of fashion, so much so that the dealer’s favorite ringing exhortations to clients–proud price points like “90”, “200”, the mysterious next-level “2”–had a piercing effect when unleashed. Those old numbers hung guiltily in the air. No one knows any longer what they mean or what to do with them. Dealers are changing the way they talk. The sound of hundreds of cellphones singing over a breeze of sighs and whispers was all I heard in that convention hall, crickets calling peacefully to one another. It felt like we were in the country.
The frantic buzz of fairs past, like that of the art world at large, has subsided. Despite the renaissance that Scharf, say, is experiencing at present–from the substantial Whitney showing we noted three columns ago, to a strong booth-presence at the ADAA, to the 100-foot-long painting performance that greeted arriving visitors today–his display was tame. It was rote, controlled and safe. He got it done, he didn’t mess up or upset anyone, and that’s what mattered.
Scharf’s presence highlighted a distinct absence at the fair. A few years ago, a tribe of young New Yorkers who eventually came to be called ‘derels’, for derelicts, were all over the art scene. Dirty, unapologetic, and working the razor’s edge of dangerous and sexy for all it was worth, these artists sold an overtly disrespectful, seditionary swagger that the art world was keen to keep in the mix. They were viewed as an asset to contemporary art. Yet the derels are nowhere to be seen in 2009, neither selling on the walls nor dragging knuckles through the aisles. Their art is now a liability in the market, their personalities are turning nobody on, and their former patrons have decided to stop wasting money trotting them out at the parties where they used to drink the place dry. Quietly, it’s as if they’re bearing some of the blame for getting us in all our troubles. Kenny Scharf, grinning and loving every minute back in the headlines, is what we’re left with.
The derel reign came during the unchecked years that have left contemporary art in its current desperate straits. The art world has lately been hobbled by an obsession–with money, money’s beauty, and the phony case for art and money’s equivalence–that systematically disenfranchised and baffled everyday art-lovers. Money-lovers enlisted cash to code art into abstruse, private terms that they shared among themselves. Thus engineered, high culture could be both pitifully cheap to those who could afford it and prohibitively expensive to those who couldn’t. Resentment fermented in those who felt that they were boxed out, while hunger boiled among those who wanted in. Money-lovers floated on, insulated and unaffected, savoring all the fun and enlightenment they’d invented for themselves alone.
Meanwhile, the nepotism, bribery and liquidity required to preserve the cold integrity of this system forced artists, critics, curators and dealers to toe the line: money was holding them hostage, so they had no choice. The art world multiplied at an intensely accelerated rate under these standardized rules. In short, like everything else in the world in 2009, the rampant greed of a small group of people has infected so many facets of our art lives that confusion, paranoia and a sensation of the ground splitting beneath one’s feet reigns supreme. And you’ll feel it all at the Armory. The Armory is a snapshot of a multi-million-dollar business model. This model is in decline, in art as in everything else, and a new one will be established. This will happen, and it will happen whether I piss in the wide, rushing river of the Armory Show or not.
It is not right to be an art lover and feel resigned at a jamboree that features 270 global dealers and thousands of new works, but this awkward moment of transition should be left to those who orchestrated it, the folk who brought it upon themselves. They deserve a bit of desolation, and could well learn to appreciate silence. They can have their dusted-off Kenny Scharf and can try and figure out what to do with the giant, droopy, hopeless street art he tried to make as decoration for their church. They’re welcome to try and justify the careless behavior they indulged in others and the vain ways they adorned their worlds in fattier times, because there’s no way to make it all count for anything now. Out the door, unchanged from an entire day looking at the art world in purgatory, I met a dazed old Connecticut lady in a daffy fox shtreimel who asked if I knew where the Anchovy Show was. Amen, sister–I’m looking for that one, too.-Bones
Next week, Bones has a look at the work of Emily Jacir, Hugo Boss Prize 2008 recipient, at the Guggenheim. Jacir is showing specific, incensed work about the 1972 murder of Palenstinian intellectual Wael Zuaiter in the wake of the terrorist acts of the Munich Olympics. Jacir ensures that everything is very carefully done, and tunes her presence in a way that is unsensational and bright. What does work like this look and feel like in person, aesthetically? Will it help cleanse the palate and encourage new priorities?