Other Criteria’s booth at the 2011 Armory Show with butterflies by Damien Hirst and Ashley Bickerton’s “Tropo Head” (2011) in the foreground. (image by the author)

On February 17, 1913, the original Armory show opened its doors. A landmark moment in the history of modern art in America the “International Exhibition of Modern Art,” as it was officially known, displayed over 1,000 paintings and sculptures by roughly 300 artists in Manhattan’s 69th Regiment Armory building, introducing an American audience to the avant-garde (Duchamp, Cezanne, Matisse, Kandinsky, Picasso … ) and including American artists alongside their European contemporaries for the first time in an exhibition of this scale.

Though the show was largely panned by critics — Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase” was famously described as “an explosion in a shingle factory”—it set the stage for America’s entrance into the international art world and the eventual shifting of its center from the capitals of Europe to New York. Eighty-one years later, in 1994, four dealers — Colin De Land, Pat Hearn, Matthew Marks and Paul Morris — came together with a not entirely dissimilar aim: to bring international art dealers shut out from the major fairs to New York to exhibit the cutting edge in contemporary art in one location. Originally held in the rooms of the Gramercy Hotel, the fair moved to the Armory building, the same location as the 1913 exhibition, in 1999, changing its name from the Gramercy International Art Fair to The Armory Show in homage before ultimately relocating to its current home on the Hudson River.

Walking around the two-pier behemoth that is today’s Armory Show, it’s hard to imagine that this was once a scrappy upstart hotel fair. Over the course of the week, I heard various people speak nostalgically about what the Armory had been like in its early years, as if it had been some prelapsarian moment before the art world discovered capitalism. However, in a 1995 Frieze magazine survey, co-founder Pat Hearn stated bluntly that “the art fair is simply an effort to move the product in whatever way possible.”

The question then isn’t one of whether the art fairs have become overly commercial: with its sad, shabby carpeting, $4 bottles of water (tantamount to blackmail in a space where there’s no other option), and Acura-sponsored lounge, replete with gleaming automobile, and labyrinthine interior, the Armory is far more convention center or shopping mall than white cube. Or perhaps, as I mentioned to a friend as we tried to navigate the fair on Saturday morning, its best analogue is a casino: no windows or clocks, but plenty of champagne, and the benchmark for measuring success or failure is money. Rather, what we should really be asking ourselves is why we expect more to begin with.

Part of the problem is that art fairs tend to bill themselves as vehicles for the promotion of art rather than sales; the other part is that we take them at their word. See, for instance, this year’s re-branding of the fair’s run as “Armory Arts Week,” including discounted museum admissions for fair-goers, public gallery tours and events throughout the city, and a whole host of free auxiliary programming at the fairs themselves like the Artprojx film and video screenings and Open Forum talks with notable artists, curators, and art historians. Browsing the Armory Arts Week website, you’d never know that art was being sold at all; instead, its stated mission is to “[celebrate] the city’s unparalleled artistic communities.” However, regardless of any inclusive language surrounding the fairs, there’s no question about whom they’re designed to serve: those with the means and the willingness to collect. Any lingering doubts should be quashed by the sheer existence of the VIP sections, which exist exclusively to keep the have-nots in place. Inside, they’re almost universally underwhelming; it’s the barrier that matters.

Perhaps more importantly, for events that purport to be about art, art fairs are abysmal environments for actually viewing it: they’re loud, cramped, often oddly lit, crowded, and hot. Works by different artists are thrown together with little consideration for aesthetics, resulting in bizarre, jarring combinations. Even the most thoughtful installations of work, few and far between though they may be, still can’t overcome the basic deficiencies of the booths themselves, which are small and shallow, offering limited viewpoints. Nothing about the fair encourages engaged spectatorship or contemplation; like a good shopping mall, it’s designed for browsing.

Poor viewing conditions aside, the sheer number of works on display seems to necessitate the quick, passing glance. For every true gem that manages to transcend its unfortunate context — the rarely-seen Rauschenberg transfer drawings from the 1960s shown by Jonathan O’Hara Gallery in the Armory’s Modern section; David Lamelas’s haunting “Film 18 Paris IV.70” (1970) projected onto a wall by Brussels-based Galerie Jan Mot at Independent; stills from Elisabeth Subrin’s “Shulie” at Sue Scott’s Volta booth; Alex Da Corte’s room full of flowers presented by Cleopatra’s at The Dependent — there are dozens more that are lazy, hackneyed, or plainly awful. As art historian James Meyer put it in the aforementioned Frieze survey, “The art fair does not flatter work. It’s the equivalent of a gay bar at 4am after the lights have been turned on: what once looked fetching has lost its appeal.”

There have, of course, been attempts to circumvent this model — indeed, the Armory Show itself in its Gramercy incarnation started off as one such attempt, an alternative to stodgier blue-chip fairs like ADAA and Art Cologne. Last year, we had Independent, which seemed like a revelation at the time with its open floor plan and lack of an admission fee, its title a kind of passive-aggressive swipe at the mega-fairs uptown. Independent of corporate sponsors, of the market, of walls, it hinted at the unjuried Salon des Indépendants of fin de siècle Paris where artists rejected by the official academic Salons — among them Cézanne, Gaugin, van Gogh, and Seurat — displayed their work. Though a number of the exhibitors at Independent also showed at Armory, the implication seems clear enough: despite its self-proclaimed inheritance of the mantle of the 1913 show, today’s Armory is the face of the art world mainstream, against which Independent defines itself. Still unquestionably the best fair in terms of interacting with the work, Independent’s sophomore effort seemed duller, less promising this time around. People around me seemed already nostalgic for the fair’s better days, back when it seemed to offer the potential to be something more than a fair. In a sense, it was always destined to disappoint. After all, what could a truly radical art fair be except for one in which nothing was for sale?

This year an even newer contender entered the mix: Dependent, a one-night-only DIY affair in a nondescript Chelsea Sheraton organized by a group of alternative galleries and artist-run spaces primarily located on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn. The name acknowledges their contingency; ironically, it’s those who are the furthest removed from the market that most clearly recognize their reliance on it. The model itself wasn’t new, but the sheer existence of the fair, and the notion of these spaces participating in one, seemed to be a form of subversion in itself, mocking the fair structure by staging one of their own.

Most booths ostensibly offered work for sale, but sales seemed to be of secondary importance: at Recess, the room’s television displayed a live feed from the bathroom in which AK Burns and Katherine Hubbard gave free haircuts, an extension of their recent project at the gallery; Chelsea project space Silvershed draped a half-eaten pizza over their TV, obscuring the video piece displayed on the screen; Richmond, Virginia’s Reference Gallery peddled branded wares promoting the gallery and artist Reid Ramirez — cheap cardboard masks bearing his grinning face, stickers, trucker hats, toys, and baby onesies emblazoned with their logo — a satirical gesture commenting on the true logic of the fairs.

In a 2007 review of the Armory Show and ADAA, curmudgeonly New Criterion critic James Panero lamented the what he saw as the fair phenomenon’s effect on art production, with galleries and artists pandering to the unrefined tastes of collectors. However, after a week of walking around the fairs, I can’t help but wonder if he’s giving them too much credit. It’s true that certain types of work are ubiquitous at art fairs: lurid figurative painting returns with a vengeance, begging for a spot above some collector’s sofa; likewise, it’s impossible to turn a corner without encountering one of Julian Opie’s trademark black outlined figures, works I’ve never actually seen in a proper exhibition. Neon is perhaps the perfect medium for art fairs, in which booths clamor for the limited attention of visitors much like chain restaurants courting tourists in Times Square. However, what’s on view at the fairs bears little resemblance to what I’ve seen in galleries or museums over the course of the past few years: of the roughly 160 artists included in the New Museum’s Younger than Jesus, the 2010 Whitney Biennial, and MoMA PS1’s Greater New York combined, less than a quarter of them were painters. The kind of work that dominates contemporary exhibitions — installation, media, and performance — is ill-suited to small booths, both in terms of presentation and collectability.

Moreover, though there are undoubtedly artists who tailor their work to the demands of the market (Damien Hirst comes to mind,) it’s not as if commerce leaves town when the fair packs up. Armory, Frieze, and Art Basel might be like Black Friday for art dealers, but the pressure to sell exists year-round. Rather, the events that seem to have had the most dramatic impact upon art production are the proliferation of biennials, triennials, quinquennials, and “generationals,” which have enabled a cadre of itinerant, globetrotting artists to move from country to country creating large-scale, site-responsive projects with varying degrees of political commitment or orientation.

Commerce is a dirty word in the art world, but it’s also what makes it run: selling art is what keeps artists fed and sheltered (at least in theory) and gallery doors open. Likewise, those billionaire collectors at whom we collectively roll our eyes during fair season are also the ones who largely bankroll museums and other art-related non-profits. Whether a patronage-based system is a good one is another question entirely; it’s the one we’ve got, and for that matter, the one we’ve always had. Take a walk around the medieval wing of any major museum; you’ll see a lot of donor portraits on the wings of altarpieces. Art fairs haven’t caused the commercialization of the art world; they’re a reflection of the commercial ties underpinning it.

Perhaps we’d all be better off if we started acknowledging the importance of money publicly: our reluctance to openly discuss issues surrounding funding has led to the widespread fiction that art is “beyond” commerce, a calling rather than an occupation. Though being an artist (or, for that matter, curator or critic) is no doubt worlds away from a typical corporate job, it’s still a form of work, and our insistence upon shoving that aspect to the side in favor of viewing it as a dimension entirely separate from the realm of capital perpetuates a system in which people don’t get paid. Groups like W.A.G.E. (Working Artists in the Greater Economy) are considered radical activists for asking for something so basic as compensation for their labor. Maybe if we spoke more frankly about these issues, some of the inequities would be forced into the spotlight: after all, what is truly revolting about art fairs isn’t so much the fact that art is being treated as a commodity — a foregone conclusion — but the gross disparity between the kind of money changing hands between collectors and dealers versus the living conditions of most art-world participants.

Shrouding the art fairs in the language of celebration and adding free programming doesn’t make them less commercial, it just allows dealers to pretend that they’re doing more than just moving products and for the rest of us to pretend that we’re not all there to gawk at the price tags. Designed for buying, selling, and networking, art fairs aren’t about art, but the art world. The sooner we recognize them as trade shows, the better.

Rachel Wetzler is a New York-based writer and a PhD student in Art History at CUNY Graduate Center. She can be found on Tumblr and Twitter.

8 replies on “In Defense of Art Fairs”

  1. “Perhaps we’d all be better off if we started acknowledging the importance of money publicly: our reluctance to openly discuss issues surrounding funding has led to the widespread fiction that art is “beyond” commerce, a calling rather than an occupation.”

    I’m thinking of having this bit tattooed on my left bicept. The only question is what size font.

    Thank you! *snapping fingers sassily*

  2. Very insightful and well written article. I personally tend to like art that exists outside of the commercial ‘art world’, because art and commerce feel ideologically opposed to me. I understand that artists need to live, buy materials etc. but all the same…when the motivation of money enters the equation then unfortunately I often begin to suspect the authenticity of intent. Although I realise that most people will probably regard this as an extreme/naively purist/cynical/ viewpoint.

    As an idea for a follow-up article, I’d like to see you explore the topic of art that refuses to be commodified. (If such a thing can even exist!).

    1. I’m not sure that there is any art that can’t be commodified. After Klein, Manzoni, LeWitt, and earth art the idea of making work now that is “uncollectable” would seem to be more about a bratty demand for attention. Similarly I think it’s a slippery slope to worry about “the authenticity of intent.”; the point of the article (which I happen to agree with) is that if the idea that art is a commodity can be normalized, rather than being seen as some dirty secret or unfortunate circumstance, it will make it ultimately easier to judge the art on aesthetic grounds.

      1. Why would it necessarily have to be “a bratty demand for attention” though? That feels like you’ve already judged the work and the motivations of it’s creator(s) before you’ve even seen it. Maybe such work already exists, but you don’t know about it, precisely because it doesn’t feel the need to demand attention in a market driven hypefest.

        I’m also interested to know why “it’s a slippery slope to worry about “the authenticity of intent.”. A slippery slope toward what exactly? Should I not bother myself with mere details like the intent behind a creation of an artwork?

        As for the normalisation of art as commodity…that seems to already be the case as far as I can see. If anything, I’d say it’s absurdly over-commodified.

  3. “Perhaps we’d all be better off if we started acknowledging the importance of money publicly: our reluctance to openly discuss issues surrounding funding has led to the widespread fiction that art is “beyond” commerce, a calling rather than an occupation.”

    Oooo! Damn straight.

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