The Independent art fair was born out of a sprawling nonprofit project founded by dealer Elizabeth Dee. Called the X Initiative, it turned the former Chelsea home of the Dia Art Foundation into a yearlong hub of exhibitions, performance, conversations, and more, all with an alternative bent. As it was coming to a close, in early 2010, Dee announced plans for the Independent. In an interview with Artinfo, the dealer stressed that this was not just another art fair. “Please don’t say the F word,” Dee said. “That’s absolutely not the intention of this project.”
Times change. The Independent’s website still doesn’t mention the F word, but a Google search will give you the metadata: “Independent Art Fair 2014.” And although the Independent’s format is far more open than other art fairs — fewer booths, walls at more acute and obtuse angles than right ones, lots of sunlight — it is, most definitely, an art fair. It has to the art to prove it.
Wandering through the Independent today, I saw many new things that looked old (and some actually old things, including two slippery Hans Arp sculptures from Michael Werner Gallery, paired with excellent contemporary work by Enrico David); several pieces of alphabet-inspired art; minimal structures and paintings galore; expressive portraits of monkeys; a plaid dress shirt hung on the wall, its pocket full of metal (surprise!); cereal boxes covered in pennies; and a mirrored cart with a Pringles can mounted to it. I briefly mistook the building’s massive metal doors for art. In the bathroom, the sound of waves crashing on a beach played from a loudspeaker, and I couldn’t figure out for sure if it was art (still haven’t). All afternoon, my thoughts kept returning to William Powhida’s taxonomy of contemporary art.
Still, an art fair is an art fair, and it can’t be faulted for such. The surprises and delights were few and far between, but maybe that meant I appreciated them more.
Brad Troemel’s installation at the Untitled gallery booth was the most distinctive and genuinely contemporary-looking of the whole fair. The pieces, which have incredibly long names based on some kind of titling system, seem to be printouts of webpages laminated and covered in neon netting, rings, and studded belts. They look like what might happen if a teenage girl and a net artist combined forces.
Nearby, at the Galerie Nagel Draxler booth, Mark Dion’s “The Collector” (2014), a taxidermied squirrel atop a mountain of minutiae (dice, chess pieces, jewelry, etc.) trapped in tar, offered a hilariously chilling (a quality that Dion has mastered) and wry send-up of the very people viewing it. 47 Canal, split on two sides of a broad aisle, had delightfully folksy quilt applique pieces by Tyler Dobson and painted rubber sculptures by Antoine Catala that seemed to be breathing as they slowly inflated and deflated. At Galleria Franco Noero’s booth, Kirsten Pieroth showed “Conservation piece” (2010), which clever plays on its title by offering the liquid remains of 30 boiled New York Times newspapers from September 2010, contained in various reused containers and jars (Starbucks frappucino, medium-hot salsa).
Ignacio Liprandi gallery brought two wonderfully surreal untitled ink and colored pencil drawings (2014) by Rita Ponce de León that split the difference between comics and illustration, as wall as “Imago Mundi VI. Independent Thinker I” (2014) by Adriana Bustos, a whirling personal cosmos in acrylic, graphite, and silver. At Ramiken Crucible’s booth, Andra Ursuta’s “Even More Love Hours” (2014) featured fake eggs, carrots, peas, tomatoes, and more arrayed in an oversized faux-aspic horseshoe — an ickier, more formalist take on Claes Oldenburg. Broadway 1602 had an amazing example of proto-digital art (full circle from Troemel): “Computer Nude (L3),” a 1967 conglomeration of silkscreen prints by Experiments in Art and Technology’s Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton. The faux-pixelated image of a reclining nude woman was a revelation.
My favorite booth was undoubtedly that of Galerie Susanne Zander, which pulled together a quirky and raunchy display under the title “Artists Unknown.” It featured four artists about whom little or nothing is known: Martina Kubelk, whose hundreds of Polaroids feature a single man dressed up in an unending range of women’s outfits; William Crawford, whose lightly sketched pencil drawings are cartoonishly pornographic; Margret / Günter K., whose vintage photos show a woman with a beehive in all manner of poses: on the deck, in a car, in her underwear, nude; and an anonymous artist, whose mixed-media scene of drunken revelers was the weakest of the group. The booth had an incredible unity that nearly all the others lacked, and I appreciated that the work was simultaneously market-oriented (visually appealing, sex sells) and not (since all of the artists are basically unknown).
The Galerie Susanne Zander display dovetailed nicely with what was probably my favorite work in the fair, a video by Michel Auder at the booth of Office Baroque Gallery. Auder shot footage of Chelsea in 1989 but didn’t edit it until 2008, resulting in a 6-minute, 21-second video.
Playing on a screen that’s propped up against the wall, “Chelsea, Manhattan – NYC” shows a grungy, gritty neighborhood filled with prostitutes — men and women (almost all in women’s clothing) waiting on street corners tentatively, approaching cars confidently, exchanging hellos as they go about their work. Viewers can spot the High Line before it was the High Line, as well as the industrial block on West 27th Street that’s now home to a number of galleries. I felt something starkly poignant in seeing such a vastly different vision of Chelsea while ensconced in the arty trendiness of current Chelsea. Times change.
The Independent Art Fair 2014 runs March 7–9 at Center 548 (548 West 22nd Street, Chelsea, Manhattan).