This year’s Armory Show may have stopped the bleeding for an art fair that has suffered from years of lackluster energy and a major blow delivered by the Frieze New York art fair, which began two years ago on a bucolic urban island and in the far warmer month of May. But no one should count out the passion New York’s art world has for art souks, a place where collectors, art tourists, and dealers easily mingle and make deals.
I’ve already discussed the welcome China focus for this year’s Armory, but the fair itself might be the most interesting in years for contemporary art fans. That’s not to say there aren’t a number of problems, including the Armory Modern section, which felt subdued and predictable, and the associated Venus Drawn Outexhibition of female artists, which resembled the visual equivalent of salon-style wallpaper for a sitting area.
Armory uses the same ratio that most art fairs stick to, with a preponderance of painting (collectors love painting), flashy sculptures, and witty juxtapositions that grab your attention from across the room.
There was a healthy selection of global galleries from every continent, and for the first time a gallery from Saudi Arabia, Athr Gallery from Jeddah, joined the fair, with a display by artists Ahmed Mater and Nasser Al Salem. I asked longtime Hyperallergic friend and Athr gallery representative Adnan Manjal why the gallery, which has also been exhibiting in Berlin and other European fairs, chose to come to Armory. “The Armory is one of the most important art fairs in the world,” he explained. “We believe our artists’ work and concepts will bring a new and fresh perspective to the audience in the US and those who attend the fair regularly. The art scene in Saudi Arabia is quite interesting, regionally and globally, whether the artists tackle social and political issues such as Ahmed Mater or spiritual matters such as contemporary calligrapher Nasser Al Salem.”
Manjal’s point is worth noting, because even in a city like New York, where there is art around every corner, you still encounter good surprises in a number of booths by artists you’ve never heard of at a place like the Armory — it’s a nice treat when it happens, though I wish it would happen more.
If there was one work that captured the spirit of the art fair better than others, it would have to be Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s “The Wedding Cake” (2008), at London’s Blain Southern gallery. Busting open Renato Bertelli’s 1933 Futurist masterpiece “Head of Mussolini (Continuous Profile),” Noble and Webster have filled the bust of the Italian dictator with a bouquet of penises. Mussolini is a dickhead, which seems obvious, but what’s more fascinating is that at an art fair there’s always going to be someone who wants to buy something like this and put it in their home (or at least in storage) — that really is more spellbinding than the object itself.
The 2014 Armory Art Fair (Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, Westside, Manhattan) continues through March 9, 12–7pm.