With sales described somewhere between “fair” and “not the worst year I’ve ever seen” by gallery dealers, the terse mood that settled over the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) Fine Art Print Fair this past weekend was in direct contrast to the darkly satirical messages pouring out from the artworks for sale. The range of work was spectacular, and the tone unified in critical jest. With little more than a week until the midterm elections, it’s hard not to read too much into the grotesque figures of Francis Bacon, the hilarious shitting clown by Bruce Nauman, or the hyper-real portraits of Miles Aldridge’s plastic women. The works were not so much escapist, but more like artistic confrontation, the likes of which we don’t often experience at art fairs. Spanning much of the 20th and 21st century, the Print Fair was rich viewing for those who appreciate the timelessness and constancy of human folly.
Beginning with the masters of the last century, Francis Bacon, Paul Klee, and Salvador Dalì collectively sent SOS messages from the past. In “Second Version of Triptych 1944,” repainted in the 1980s, Bacon’s blood-red backgrounds and nightmarish figures, indistinguishable as either man or beast, elicit a sense of unknowable horror. A Dalì lithograph from 1971 is more lighthearted, filled with headless dancing figures and the Victorian silhouette of a woman collaged with cuts of meat, suggesting that perhaps the human condition is simply there for a gruesome laugh.
A dusty pink Klee lithograph from 1925 shows a tightrope walker hovering above the abstracted outline of buildings — carefree or careworn, it’s impossible to know. In a similar but more contemporary vein, the black and white etching of William Kentridge from 1996 brings the absurd to the forefront, as the portly figure of the artist sleeps, bathes, and dances nude. Together, these works paint a world of immersive imagination, from the idyllic to the obscene.
Moving from the psychological into the fantastic, Marcel Duzma’s black and white triptych of creatures takes on a life of its own — theatrical, sometimes cute, and always slightly sinister, like characters from Grimms’ Fairy Tales. From the performative to the imaginary, the animals in Ana Maria Pacheco’s “An Ancient Dark Night Descended Upon My Soul” bring viewers into a cinematic world of magic and symbolism. The drypoint engraving, full of shadowy and meticulous detail, shows a group of creatures huddled together, eyes darting in every direction, as something approaches. Equally dreamlike though less surreal was a lithograph by José Clemente Orozco titled “Brothel.” Soundly snoring after a night of revelry, Orozco captures the drunken sleep of a pile of Johns. Addressing issues of class and propriety, Orozco exposes his subjects without glorifying or condemning them. Questioning the baffling nature of the subconscious feels as timely as taking an unflinching look at the reality of our own desires and behaviors.
From the monochromatic realm of dreams to the Kodachrome world of Pop and Punk sentiments, irreverence rounded out the aesthetic. Warhol’s recreation of Munch’s “The Scream” from 1984 and his bright blue screenprint of Jackie Kennedy’s smiling face moments before her husband was assassinated, highlight how the Pop aesthetic continues to turn culture into commodities we crave.
A Punk mood emanated from the British gallery of Paul Stolper, which was showing the works of Jamie Reid and Mat Collishaw. Reid’s quadriptych of perfect smiling lips pierced by a safety pin, created with colorful pointillist dots and “diamond dust” glitter was aptly titled “Pinned Queen.” New work from Mat Collishaw, “Gasconades,” places decorative (and domesticated) goldfinches on a perch in front of dilapidated walls covered in peeling paint and colorful graffiti. A nod to the genre paintings of the 17th-century Dutch masters, these prints feel entirely contemporary and full of questions about captivity and beauty. Delving deep into West Coast subcultures were the drawings of Raymond Pettibon, collectively celebratory — with images of baseball and surfing — to harshly critical and crude.
The list of works addressing personal and political folly was seemingly endless, tucked into corners and sometimes without labels, like the small, Sharpie-like ink drawing by Ida Applebroog, which shows two men, each with one leg and one crutch, saying “Thank You, Mr. President.” Behind all of these artworks is the question of human nature, with its capacity to both appall and astound, and while few concrete answers could be gleaned, the work provoked viewers to reconsider a timeless subject now more relevant than ever.
The Fine Art Print Fair was held in the Jacob K. Javits Center (Hudson Yards District, Manhattan) from October 25–28.