Let’s face it: navigating Armory Week and all its various satellites is a bitch. With so much art to see and endless booths to maneuver, it’s all very daunting. But we love it. Well, at least I love it.
Spontaneity and taxis are the two things I rely on the most. Spontaneity, because one should always open to possibilities, no matter what the schedule might dictate. Taxis, because who in their right mind wants to walk the five long-ass blocks to Pier 92, where the Armory Show’s Modern section was housed, from the subway (with a headwind off the Hudson River that somehow affects travel in both directions)?
A tiny black-and-white painting by the expressionist Jean-Paul Riopelle, “Untitled (Iceberg Series)” (1977), was the first work that grabbed me. On view at the booth of Oriol Galería d’Art, based in Barcelona, the painting measures only 10 by 13 inches but is incredibly seductive. Riopelle was known for his voluminous impasto, and this little work does not disappoint, with heavy lines of black carved deep into the back of the canvas with palette knife. Its simplistic, totemic gestures echo a range of history painting that could easily date back to the Lascaux caves. In 1972, Riopelle returned to his hometown of Québec and built a studio at Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson. The stark northern landscapes there inspired his Iceberg Series of 1977 and 1978, to which this painting is attributed.
Bill Traylor is one of my favorites, and his “Three Figure Construction in Black” (1939–42) at Carl Hammer Gallery’s booth is a complex composition by the self-taught artist. Born into slavery in 1854 and working as a sharecropper until he was 84, Traylor made simple, silhouette-dominated drawings that reek with haunting memories. In this work, one man seems to hold a whip over another. “It’s not always obvious what Traylor is drawing, because he’s rarely just reproducing something inanimate that he remembers,” wrote the folk art curator Susan Crawley. “Great artists absorb forms and images from the world around them and their own imagination, and in their remarkable brains, these things are amalgamated and come out as something else.”
In a world dominated by male voices, Eva Hesse stands as a pioneering woman artist associated with the mid-1960s postminimal, anti-form trend in sculpture. Her art is most often viewed in the light of all the painful struggles of her life, including escaping the Nazis, her parents’ divorce, the suicide of her mother, and her own failed marriage. But in a whimsical work on paper, “Three Bears Rolling Down a Snowy Hill” (1961) at Armand Bartos Fine Art’s booth, she seems to not have a care in the world.
JayDeFeo, whose retrospective is currently at the Whitney, is another one of those strong ladies battling not only their own demons, but also barriers imposed on them by a society hell-bent on the suppression of women. The Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, for as long as I can remember, has been more than a sustaining force in the careers of many artists who happen to be women, DeFeo included. There were three wonderful works by her in their booth, alongside Nancy Grossman’s giant red-and-black collage “Red Enna Diary” (1987) and two collages by DeFeo’s Fillmore Street friend Jess.
Robert Moskowitz is a maverick whose work has been viewed as a significant link between the Abstract Expressionism of the late 1950s and the New Image Abstraction of the mid-1970s. At the Marianne Elrick-Manley Fine Art & Amy Wolf Fine Art booth, there was a rare envelope drawing that dates to the early 1960s, created at time when Moskowitz was exhibiting with Johns, Lichtenstein, and Rauschenberg at the Leo Castelli Gallery. Historians have championed the paintings, drawings, and collages associated with this series as Moskowitz’s breakthrough work, and it’s true — they’re quite special and rare. To see this work in comparison with his new stuff, currently on exhibit at KSArt, was to see nearly five decades of the artist’s consistently sensitive and the intimate style. Also at Marianne Elrick-Manley Fine Art & Amy Wolf Fine Art was a standout crochet wire sculpture by Ruth Asawa.
Rauschenberg, who revolutionized postwar modernism with his experimental approach to materials and content, was at the Senior & Shopmaker Gallery booth. His Photem series was a continuation of his effort to obscure the lines between painting and sculpture, photography and printmaking, sculpture and photography, and sculpture and technology. In “Photem Series I #6 (Mr. Peanut)” (1991), four gelatin prints are exquisitely mounted to aluminum in a humorous presentation of Mr. Peanut, the American Flag, and a wrapped Charleston Holiday Inn sign with a marquee that reads “not a member of.”
By far the greatest gem of a find at Pier 92 was a work on paper at Vivian Horan Fine Art, titled “This drawing may be…” (1971), by the absolutist of singular form, Richard Tuttle. King of the sublime, Tuttle has been celebrated far and wide for his work’s Romantic suggestions and beauty. To stand in front of such a work is to be calmed as the world moves and turns relentlessly.
In an art world that continues to run on more, more, and more, “less is more” is a mantra that I certainly welcome. That and the occasional warm ride in a taxi.
The Armory Show – Modern took place March 7–10 at Pier 92 (Twelfth Avenue at West 55th Street, Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan).