Walking through the Armory Show this year made me feel as if I were wandering through a playground for the exceptionally wealthy. In truth, this has been my experience of most every edition of the fair — except for last year’s show, which featured a Focus section that brought a unique kind of energy with its emphasis on art circulating in the global contemporary but with roots in Africa. This year’s show seemed to me more business as usual, with fairgrounds on Piers 92 and 94 along the west side of Manhattan festooned with incandescent baubles and visually roisterous works that clamor to capture my gaze and concentrate my attention. Before I can properly make sense of one work, there’s another lined up behind it.
I thought, as I started my meander at Pier 92, that I was already spending too much time on the first booths I saw, but they were that mix of playfulness and caprice that made them irresistible. I first spoke with an attendant at the booth of Berlin gallery Dittrich & Schlechtriem about a piece by Dorian Gaudin, “Untitled” (2017), that looked like a large, complex, industrial gadget with folded metallic skin, pulleys, switches, and small ramps that all seemed to produce a puff of air now and again to move a cylinder from one ramp to the other. Its Rube Goldberg machine-like qualities now seems to me like an apt symbol of the entire massive operation of the fair: visually enthralling work with magnificently high production values that leaves me a bit dazed and desperate for substance.
What saved me from being aesthetically overwhelmed were the conversations I had, randomly running into colleagues and friends who are artists, writers, gallerists, and curators. These were mostly quick and dirty conversations, acknowledging the other and the fact that we were there to work, but they kept me grounded in this garden of endless extravagance. Running into work by artists with whom I’m very familiar or have written about lately gave me a similar feeling: like striking up an ongoing conversation with an old friend I hadn’t seen for a while.
Among my favorites were the Tom Otterness sculptures in Marlborough Gallery‘s booth and a wonderful, frieze-like sculpture, “Untitled” (2017), made of “thermoshaped plastic mesh” by the Recycle Group, on view in the booth of Paris’s Suzanne Tarasieve gallery. Sprüth Magers knocked me back a few feet with their massive piece by Michail Pirgelis, “Diver” (2016), which consisted of part of the wing of an airplane. It’s an old trick to go big with an object that has utilitarian functions, but it still works now and then. As I said, big and electric, this fair.
I was happy to run into Alma Thomas‘s “Apollo 12 ‘Splash Down’” (1970) in the Michael Rosenfeld Gallery booth, and was even happier to see a booth full of Jacob Lawrence’s work at Jonathan Boos. I have a lot of affection for Jeffrey Gibson’s heavy bags, and his “Our Freedom is Worth More than Our Pain” (2017) keeps both the pugilistic purpose of the work balanced with the decorative filigree of the bead work he has added to the bags.
Incidentally, the only other work I saw on Wednesday that had an explicitly political resonance was in the booth of the same Los Angeles gallery, Roberts & Tilton, who were also showing my former professor, Daniel J. Martinez. His riot shields — “Riot Shield (Butter)” and “Riot Shield (Cherry Blossom)” (both 2012) — that have oddly poetic phrases written on them in yellow script stay true to the heart of his practice: arguing that none of the tools we use are innocent, but by their very fashioning have political content. Such work can easily be engulfed by the tsunami wave of sleek, overproduced visual extravaganzas. But, here and there, more meaningful objects bob to the surface, and these are worth catching a glimpse of.
The 2017 Armory Show continues at Pier 92 and Pier 94 (711 Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan) through March 5.